Good journalists treat undocumented claims with a level of skepticism summarized in a classic phrase: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in an age of lean staffs, web-speed pace and eroding standards, one-source stories slip in and readers can have more skepticism than pros.
A fresh example of uncritical reporting appears on three mainstream news sites that present dramatic tales of past sex slavery in Birmingham and supposed risks during the Detroit auto show.
Here’s what Cameron Stewart of Michigan Radio says in his Jan. 14 lead:
Human trafficking occurs at troubling rates during the North American International Auto Show.
His sole source is Theresa Flores, a Toledo author (“The Slave Across the Street“) and crusader interviewed for an 18-minute public radio segment. No auto show executive, law enforcer, sex crimes specialist or public official is quoted in the 22-paragraph version online.
Michigan Radio relies solely on Flores, who suggests this auto show connection:
“Any time there’s a large amount of people coming to a city, we see a spike in those ads. Every survivor I have spoken to has been brought through Detroit at one point.”
Five days earlier, Birmingham Patch quoted her as saying:
“The Detroit Auto Show is an event in Detroit that consistently increases the number of girls who are trafficked into the city for sex.”
No independent sourcing, no expert reaction, no verification is in any either report.
At MLive, which wrote about Flores Jan. 11 under the headline “Former sex slave from Birmingham shares personal tale of human trafficking,” reporter Gus Burns made a minimal pass at additional sources .He cites two online data points, though neither connects the auto show to sex trafficking:
- One says a group in Washington, D.C., “received 46 calls during the first nine months of 2012 about possible cases of human slavery in Detroit.” [Emphasis added.]
- The other says “human trafficking . . . affects an estimated 700,000 to 2 million people around the globe every year.”
Flores also is quoted at length by Stewart — as well as by MLive and Patch — about being drugged, raped and blackmailed into prostitution by a Groves High School high school classmate.
“They would deliver me to beautiful houses all over Birmingham and then take me back home at around four in the morning,” she says at Michigan Radio, where the reporter adds: “Her trafficker still lives in the same area and has never been prosecuted.”
That statement is among those that make some readers wonder in online comments. So is this from the second paragraph in Patch:
Every night for two years, she was raped and tortured as part of a sex ring that Flores kept hidden from her friends, police and family.
Again, the only source is Flores, promoting an auto show-related outreach project with the Junior League of Birmingham.
“It’s simply impossible that she was raped and tortured ‘every night for two years,’ ” posts Lynn Fremuth of Bloomfield Hills at a Facebook group of past and present Birmingham residents. “Really? Not one single reporter questioned this incredible story? . . . She has not identified, much less made any effort to bring her assailant(s) to justice. That’s one of the issues that bothers me so much.”
A thread there about coverage of the media-savvy Flores has more than 80 comments. “Wonder if anyone from the Junior League ever really researched this person?” says Marianne Hurley of Royal Oak. “This story just grows like Topsy,” former Birmingham resident Tina Downey posts.
Flores, whose website offers “staff training, guest lecturing, special presentations” for fees, isn’t restrained about self-promotion:
- Her Twitter bio begins: “American Sex Slave Survivor.”
- Her site offers her book for $15.
- The home page says she has been on The Today Show, MSNBC, a Discovery Channel series called Kidnap & Rescue and America’s Most Wanted.
- All three local articles are accompanied by a photo she provided.
Skepticism, along with a partial defense, is posted at the Facebook group by Sue Himrod, a former Birmingham resident:
“She is doing good work now, but making up a past to support it, to call attention to herself, helps no one and may undercut anyone who has truly suffered. As stated, there are too many holes and no real facts to check, which I find suspect.”
As a gruff editor would say in a bygone era: “If an author says she was a sex slave, check it out.”