Those who have read Lagniappe for years know we have never pulled punches when it comes to covering the social, political and media landscape in our area, so that can’t stop now even when we’re the ones getting socked.
After several weeks of intensive investigation we must write what no publishers want to write — that we believe this newspaper has been the victim of a reporter manufacturing sources in stories. While it does not appear to be widespread, there is zero tolerance for such falsehoods in journalism in general and Lagniappe in particular and the record must be set straight. It is not a pleasant thing to do, but journalistic ethics dictate such matters not be swept under the rug.
On Jan. 31, reporter Katie Nichols was fired after we discovered she was being untruthful about covering a day of service for the homeless that morning at the Civic Center. Nichols claimed to be at the event when she was not, then claimed to have spoken by phone with organizers when she had not. Subsequent to her dismissal, though, we discovered she had begun writing a story about the event and it started with a clearly manufactured interview with a homeless man named “Michael” who was at the event. Alarm bells went off.
Asked about this, Nichols claimed she had spoken with the homeless man via phone. Days later though, she admitted that was not true. While we were relieved to have caught this transgression before it went into print, we knew we must go back and be sure there weren’t other falsehoods that had made it into print.
So we started looking at her body of work during the two years she was at Lagniappe. Fortunately the vast majority of it had been institutional coverage of City Council, the mayor, school board and other events that involved well-known people in public meetings. Investigative stories were overseen closely, with editors providing heavy input and direction. We also had stacks of her notebooks to go through and they corroborated most of her reporting. But questions lingered.
In particular an Aug. 22, 2012 story about sex offenders living in clusters in the area began with an interview with a grandmother standing in her front yard watching her 8-year-old grandson. The grandmother didn’t want to offer her name, but at the time it had seemed rather innocuous — just someone living near one of the clusters expressing concern. In researching her work, we asked Nichols to tell us where the grandmother lived and she said she had been driving around looking for someone to interview and could not remember where it occurred. Repeated requests for an address or even a street went unanswered for more than a week until she finally gave us a specific address on Delwood Drive.
The house had been sold in July of last year and the previous owner was dead, which complicated verification significantly. But after a lot of legwork we were able to track down the man’s widow who claimed she had never spoken to Nichols and hadn’t even been living at the house at that time. The woman’s husband was dying at that time as well. She also said her grandsons were not the right age.
We have been unable to find any records of this interview in Nichols’ notes and given her reluctance to provide an address and the subsequent denial by the previous occupant that she had been interviewed, we now doubt the existence of the grandmother and child Nichols described in the story. After researching the remainder of the story we are comfortable with the veracity of its reporting.
Another area of concern came from a Dec. 26, 2013 story on Housing First. Nichols interviewed people with Housing First and local businessman James Ward, but she also began that story interviewing a 54-year-old homeless man named Charles King. Looking through Nichols’ notebooks at the office, we were unable to find any interview with King. When we asked her about that, she claimed the notes were at her house and promised to deliver them. Weeks later she still had not produced them. She also said she recorded the interview but erased it. She told us the interview was conducted outside the CVS at Government and Broad Streets.
In the story she indicates King is a member of the city’s homeless population. Local agencies serving the area’s homeless weren’t immediately familiar with Charles King, but two men with that name did show up in the databases, but only one appears to have been around Mobile much. The folks at 15 Place said the last time he shows up on local records is in 2011. We’ve asked Nichols to provide a description of King, but she has not responded.
Lagniappe is unable to verify Nichols’ interview with Charles King at this time given her inability to produce any records of her interview, combined with anyone bearing that name showing up in local records recently. The rest of the facts in the story check out.
Thus far we have found no other instances in which we believe Nichols may have fabricated interviews in Lagniappe. But again, even once is too much and requires us to set the record straight.
Nichols’ many excuses for not being able to prove the validity of these interviews might carry more weight if they did not follow on the heels of the discovery that she also has been dishonest about a number of things directly and indirectly related to her work with Lagniappe.
Among those most pertinent, she told us she has earned bachelor’s degrees from the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama in music business and journalism respectively. Both schools’ registrars offices have verified Student Clearinghouse searches stating she does not hold a degree from either. Alabama verified that she never even attended, although she was accepted.
When confronted with these facts, Nichols continued maintained that she earned bachelor’s degrees from both universities in a five-year period.
“I’ve requested UA to send you my transcript and will do the same for USA,” Nichols texted Feb. 17. As we go to press, Lagniappe has received no transcripts from either school.
A story from the Selma Times, where Nichols began her journalism career in 2007, says she was finishing her journalism degree at Alabama and would graduate by December of that year. She worked there until February 2008, according to her resume, then picked up at the Greenville, Miss. Delta Democrat Times in August 2008 as a reporter. She was there until coming to Lagniappe in November 2011. Nichols joined the staff at al.com after being dismissed by Lagniappe.
Nichols’ career at the Delta Democrat Times was marred by journalistic integrity issues as well, according to her former editor Dominick Cross. Cross said Nichols was suspended for two weeks after attempting to plagiarize an article from another publication.
“She copied and pasted a whole article from Southern Living, I think, and put her name on it,” Cross said. “The publisher Googled it and it came right back. I suggested we fire her, but he just suspended her…. She admitted to it and cried and said she had too much work to do.”
Another person in management at the paper at the time confirmed Cross’ recollection of Nichol’s suspension. Requests for her to comment on the suspension were not returned before deadline.
Her former editor at the Selma Times, Leesha Faulkner, verified Nichols had indeed told them she was working on her journalism degree at UA when she joined the paper. Faulkner said Nichols had mostly covered police and had done a good job for them, but she was shocked to hear she hadn’t actually attended Alabama.
“I gave her the day off to go to graduation,” she said.
At this time we have been unable to identify any other stories written by Nichols in which we feel information was fabricated. If that changes we will report it.
Nearly 12 years after starting Lagniappe we are still driven by our desire to provide people in our area with a high-quality, local newspaper and the most important part of doing that is making sure that to the best of our ability we print the truth.
Journalists aren’t known for making tons of money or having cushy jobs. We work hard to report the truth, so it’s really hard to imagine why occasionally some join our ranks who aren’t really dedicated to that end. It’s happened at some of the most prestigious newspapers and magazines in the country. The only solace we take in any of this is that does not appear to have been widespread and that we caught her final story before it went to print.
We apologize to our readers for this breach of faith. Hopefully it is a small strain in a relationship that has been built over nearly a dozen years. We know this has also hurt all of the people who work with us and hope it will quickly pass.
As Lagniappe’s publishers we can only promise that we are serious about our dedication to honesty and integrity in journalism and that we will be better keepers of that trust moving forward.