The Danger of “Contributing Writers”

by Kerry Martin 

Everyone has an opinion.  And since the advent of social media, those opinions have been easier and easier to broadcast throughout the world (like on this blog, for instance).

For the print and online news media, those opinions have started to mix with traditional, fact-based journalism.  Content from the opinion pages has leaked into other sections, and writers who usually covered standard beats can now express their views as “columnists.”  As this practice has become the norm, most readers have adjusted, learning the writing style and standpoints of their favorite reporters-turned-personalities.

But for outlets hosting content from subject matter experts or just other voices, readers oftentimes can’t distinguish the difference between real on-staff reporters and these so-called “contributing writers.”  The danger therein is twofold:  these bloggers don’t always have the same fact-checking editors that other trained journalists have, and their opinion is given more credibility behind the banner of esteemed news publications.

Take for example Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine and biostatistics in the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins University who writes for Forbes.com.  He wrote a post earlier this week criticizing the University of Florida (UF) for eliminating its computer science department due to budget cuts while also commenting on the budget increase for its athletic program.  Salzberg had to make two corrections to the article about incorrect numbers quoted in the article and his insinuation that the University Athletic Association (which maintains a separate budget from the academic budget) could use its budget surplus to cover the cost of the program.  The most flagrant of errors in the article, however, was the fact that nowhere had he written that the changes to the computer science department were proposed … planned … not enacted.

More than 350,000 views later, the damage had been done.  Salzberg’s article was referenced in dozens of other posts locally and nationally (by other bloggers and actual journalists alike) further adding to the credibility of his false presumptions.

The University Relations team at the University of Florida quickly responded to the article with a response posted on the College of Engineering’s website about his incorrect claims, as well, UF President Bernie Machen addressed the situation and how the university is continuing to evaluate proposals for mitigating the budget.

Salzberg even wrote a follow-up piece about it—the view count is already up to a whopping 8,500.  And who said the corrections section doesn’t work?

(It should be noted that as one of the three members of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, the University of Florida is a Curley & Pynn client, that fellow C&P employees earned their degrees from UF, and … well, this is just my opinion.)

2 Responses to The Danger of “Contributing Writers”

  1. Roger Pynn says:

    Of course now this world class journalist can take credit for starting a movement that changed the course of history.

  2. Kerry Martin says:

    He appeared to really feel justified in his second post. I didn’t see much of a correction besides softening his language from “eliminate” to “severely cut.”

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