I clicked on my computer early last Tuesday to see if any news stories had been posted about the death of my Vietnam War reporting friend, Anne Morrissy Merick.
They had, and in some cases, I was shocked to see, they were accompanied by a photo of me instead of her.
Anne died in Naples, Florida, on May 2 of complications from dementia. She was 83.
She was a pioneering ABC-News producer who fought for the rights of women reporters to cover the Vietnam War.
Even as a college student she advanced the cause for female reporters by becoming the first woman to be named sports editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, and the first woman admitted to the press box at the Yale Bowl.
When I was reporting in Vietnam, Anne successfully prevented Gen. William C. Westmoreland from enacting an order to prohibit women reporters from staying overnight on combat operations, which would have severely handicapped our ability to cover the war.
That pending order came after a chance encounter I had in 1967 with Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam. He had helicoptered out to see the aftermath of a battle in Plei Djereng in the Central Highlands in which many U.S. soldiers had died.
Westmoreland was surprised to see me at the dangerous outpost with the unit. I was 24. Westmoreland’s wife was a friend of my mother.
That encounter apparently prompted Westmoreland to consider forbidding women from staying overnight with military units. Since there were no front lines in Vietnam and it was impossible to know exactly when a firefight was going to erupt, it would have been difficult for women reporters to carefully plan their exits from the field each night, a regulation that was never considered for male reporters.
By urging the few women reporters covering the war to sign a petition of protest and organizing a meeting with a key Pentagon official, Anne persuaded the Pentagon to block Westmoreland’s order before it took effect.
Obituaries about Anne started popping up on my computer as I scrolled down. But I was taken aback: the picture on at least three of the obituaries was not Anne. It was a 50-year-old copyrighted picture of me on a combat operation in a defoliated forest near the Cambodian border.
The worst part was the inaccurate picture seemed to have a life of its own. The Washington Post used my photo instead of Anne’s on its website for 19 hours without correcting the error.
Other internet news agencies began to post my picture on their versions of the obituary.
This was despite my messages, tweets and emails and a call from another reporter to report the error.
A reporting friend of mine who works at the Post told me later, “Unfortunately that happens a lot these days on the internet, when one outlet reports a certain thing as one thing, it’s often speedily reposted/aggregating on another site with the same inaccurate facts.”
News aggregation is when reporters take information including photos from other on-line sites and incorporate the information into their own reporting by using links.
It seemed particularly unfortunate that Anne, a stickler for careful, accurate news reporting, was now, in her final story, depicted inaccurately on at least three news sites.
When I told Civil Beat News Editor Richard Wiens about it, we reflected on how the internet has been both a blessing and a curse to news reporting.
“The internet is a great tool, offering reporters fast access to information from many sources, but it can also breed a lackadaisical attitude, a certain laziness and sloppiness,” Wiens says.
Another issue with news aggregation is when reporters pilfer protected photos from websites without first checking to make sure the pictures they are lifting for their stories are the accurate images to match their content and finding out if the pictures are available for general use, Wiens says.
Apparently, that’s how my copyrighted photo ended up topping Anne’s obituary on three different news sites. No checking.
Washington Post reporter Samantha Schmidt apologized in an email when I finally heard back from her. She wrote, “We struggled to find a photo of (Anne) last night so we simply included this photo embedded in a tweet from Jezebel. We will make sure we replace the photo.”
Jezebel is an on-line news site that promotes itself as “a blog geared toward women.”
The Post at first embedded the tweet from Jezebel but later in the day it made the tweet its main picture with Anne’s obituary.
In a phone conversation later, Schmidt said grabbing photos is something the Post’s five-member overnight crew does as a last resort.
She says a tweeted picture is allowed by the Post as long as the source is identified.
“It is kind of a strange new digital way of getting stuff out quickly,” Schmidt says.
Schmidt said she should have confirmed that the picture was Anne before using it. She apologized for her delayed reaction in fixing the mistake, explaining that she had not yet listened to phone messages that would have alerted her earlier.
Schmidt agreed there was a definite risk in embedding an unverified picture from another source.
“This has been a wakeup call for me,” she said.
Civil Beat’s Wiens says he learned early on in his 38 years of journalism to take special care with obituaries.
“It is the deceased person’s last chance,” he says. “Obituaries will be saved and cherished by family members. It is the last thing you want to screw up.”
Jezebel contributor Rachel Vorona Cote offered the most bizarre reason for how and why she lifted my picture and plopped it over Anne’s obit the Jezebel website.
And Vorona Cote seemed only mildly concerned that her carelessness had set in motion inaccurate reporting by other news agencies.
She explained to me in an email: “There are generally two options that I have for selecting photographs: using something from Getty Images, where Jezebel has a subscription, or taking a screenshot from the internet and linking to it.
“Getty did not have an image of Ms. Merick, and there were no videos available online. So, I went to Amazon and used a screenshot from the book cover of ‘War Torn’ — I linked to the Amazon page in caption. I meant absolutely no disrespect to you, and apologize for any upset or inconvenience.”
“War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam,” is a 2002 book written by Merick and me and seven other colleagues.
My picture is on the cover of the hardback and paperback editions. Vorona Cote says she never checked to find out if the picture on “War Torn,” was Anne when she grabbed the screen shot of me on the book’s cover from Amazon.
This was Vorona Cote’s explanation in her second emailed response: “I confess that was yet another mistake on my part. I should have, at the very least, been very explicit that this was the cover of the book, and not necessarily a photo of the author herself (Anne Morrissy Merick).I certainly did not intend to mislead anyone, but of course I understand how the confusion would occur, since the photo focuses on a female journalist — you.”
She called it “an inappropriately amateurish mistake, and one I certainly will not make in the future.”
The most surprising news outlet to use the wrong photo on Anne’s obituary was the Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper of Cornell University where Anne graduated in 1955.
Cornell University library has some incredible pictures of Anne. I came across a picture of her there when I was researching an obituary I was writing at the request of Anne’s daughter. It would have been easy for the Cornell newspaper to find photos of Anne at the school library or in other campus files.
Cornell Daily Sun’s Managing Editor Josh Grisky was unrepentant about saving some time by cribbing my photo from the Washington Post and Jezebel without checking for accuracy or seeking permission to use a copyrighted photo.
Grisky explained in an email: “The photo was used in an obituary in the Washington Post and on Jezebel. We found a version of it that was incorrectly labeled as free-use and we incorrectly assumed that since two other sources were using the photo, it was of Morrissy Merick.”
If Anne were alive, I am sure she would have been shaking her head in disbelief about such a cavalier attitude.
The Internet Era offers incredible research benefits to journalists, and can save them a lot of time. But that also means they should have more time to do what has always been a professional requirement: check and recheck information to make sure it is correct instead of quickly posting a slapdash story.