Multiple stories were unpublished from Examiner.com, following a three month long iMediaEthics investigation. This is the second time in 2016 Examiner has deleted stories after iMediaEthics questioned editors about inaccuracies and journalism standards.
Instead of correcting errors, Lisa Blanck, an Examiner.com reporter, threatened this intern reporter and iMediaEthics with a lawsuit after we began our investigation into three of her articles, which reported on alleged tent cities during wildfires near Springdale, Washington.
“I believe that the attorneys may be very interested in pursuing a case against you and iMediaEthics,” Blanck wrote in response to iMediaEthics’ questions.
iMediaEthics verified that neither the tent city nor its supposed rescue of displaced people ever existed. We also uncovered a host of other problems with Blanck’s reporting during fact checking.
When our reporting began in April, based upon a tip from a reader, Examiner.com told iMediaEthics it would investigate complaints regarding Blanck’s three articles about wildfires in Washington state. The three reports featured a link to a fundraising campaign that solicited readers to donate on the crowdsourcing website, YouCaring.
Examiner.com’s investigation apparently ended, iMediaEthics notes, because all three articles we questioned have been unpublished from the news site. (Blanck is still listed by Examiner.com an active contributor on the site. An Examiner editor told iMediaEthics that they “must decline your request to discuss our internal decision-making processes.”)
“There was no official tent city.”
Blanck’s three stories, now unpublished, were both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. She reported that the Shepherd’s Way Animal Rescue, owned by Allen and Carrie Aenk, filled in as an emergency refuge during a large-scale forest fire in Washington state. She alleged the rescue was serving as a command center for volunteer firefighters and hundreds of displaced residents that later were also evacuated. All three articles originally included a link to a YouCaring fundraising page that asked readers to give in-kind donations and money to fund the charitable “tent city.”
YouCaring told iMediaEthics it deleted the fundraising page after it was unable to verify its legitimacy (more on this later).
During iMediaEthics investigation, we discovered that Blanck also failed to report an important context about Carrie Aenk, co-owner of the Shepherd’s Way Animal Rescue, which the fundraiser was supposedly benefiting. During the 1990s, Aenk was convicted of attempting to defraud a bank for $435,000, decades before Blanck’s 2016 reporting, as revealed by a simple Google search she should have done and legal documents iMediaEthics obtained through LexisNexis.
After Blanck’s articles, in Jan. 2016, Aenk was convicted of attempted second and third degree theft of $3,000 from a person who wanted to adopt from her animal rescue, iMediaEthics confirmed with Leslie Taylor at the the Spokane County Superior Court Clerk’s office. Aenk served just one day of a two month sentence, according to Chris Plunkett of the Spokane County Detention Services. Her conviction was first reported by the Spokesman-Review.
When the public is being asked for donations of goods and cash, Blanck needed to have researched, fact checked and provided that important context of a criminal record.
Even after iMediaEthics contacted Blanck about errors, her deleting links to the YouCaring campaign page and her failure to report on Aenk’s background, among other issues, she continued to refuse to update and correct her stories, instead of providing a rebuttal or simply making corrections.
Removing the links to the troubling charitable campaign without a disclosure from Blanck does not adequately warn or protect the public from potentially being defrauded, as her articles served as an endorsement of the charitable cause.
Where is the money? Not from Walmart
One of Blanck’s articles claimed that a local Walmart was matching “any purchases of supplies made by The Shepherd’s Way Rescue.”
A media representative for Walmart denied this claim, as it goes against policy. “We never agree to do dollar for dollar with any charity,” a Walmart media representative told iMediaEthics over the phone. “We never made that agreement with any charitable cause.”
Why did YouCaring delete the campaign?
Curiously, the Aenks didn’t set up the now-deleted YouCaring campaign. Instead, another animal rescue, called Lost Pet Found Pet, owned by a “Karen Ann,” was named as its sponsor.
YouCaring administrators removed the campaign, “WA animal sanctuary aids wildfire evacuees with Tent City,” on September 9, 2015, after Karen Ann “did not provide requested information for verification of their campaign,” Leonard Lee, a media representative for YouCaring, told iMediaEthics in April. (A cached version of the fundraiser can be seen here.)
The campaign only raised $715 of its $10,000 goal before YouCaring acted to delete it. It is unclear where the $715 is now. YouCaring allows campaign organizers to deposit money directly into their bank accounts as soon as the money is donated, but their frequently asked questions don’t address what happens to money if a campaign is removed.
Tawni Alailima, a YouCaring Marketing Specialist, said that refunds are handled on a case-by-case basis. “In most cases where there is just a policy violation, the fundraiser is closed, but the organizer will still keep the funds that were raised up until the closure,” Alailima told iMediaEthics in an email.
“In cases where we believe there has been misrepresentation,” she continued, “we can recommend refunds to WePay and PayPal.”
So we asked what happened in this campaign, and YouCaring decline to answer, citing privacy concerns.
iMediaEthics reached out to Elayne Boosler, president of the animal advocacy organization Tails of Joy, who donated to the fundraiser to see if she received a refund. “We received no money back, nothing further, after donating,” Boosler told iMediaEthics. “In twenty years of doing rescue this way, we have never been burned, except by a fire fundraiser!”
iMediaEthics’ multiple emails and Twitter requests for comment to Karen Ann have also gone unanswered, leaving her connection to the Aenks unclear. Blanck similarly refused to answer questions about the nature of a professional or personal relationship with Karen Ann or the Aenks.
What legal matter?
Legal threats by Blanck likely remind readers of another iMediaEthics investigation into an article by now-former Examiner.com reporter Cindy Marabito. As we reported, Examiner.com responded by firing her and unpublishing her entire archive of reports. That iMediaEthics investigation can be read here After our Marabito report, a reader complained to iMediaEthics about Blanck’s wildfire articles, saying, “It was all a lie… Except the wildfires,” which prompted iMediaEthics to investigate.
Two local television news outlets, KXLY Newsin Spokane and KOMO News in Seattle, covered the wildfire, and were reported that the YouCaring fundraiser promoted in Blanck’s articles had been deleted and two photos featured in both the fundraiser and in one of Blanck’s articles were misattributed, misdated and of wildfires in California and Wyoming, not Washington.
iMediaEthics contacted Blanck to ask if she was aware of the criticisms and the deletion of the charitable campaign. We also asked if she was planning on updating her own articles to disclose that YouCaring took the fundraiser down. “This is a legal matter that will be heard in the courts, therefore I have no comment,” Blanck wrote to iMediaEthics via email. “I will forward your email to the lawyers involved in the case.”
We asked again if she would correct her articles and for clarification about what lawyers she was referencing.
“This matter is in the hands of attorneys and has been for some time,” Blanck responded. She added that she would not be updating the articles to reflect the removal of the fundraiser from YouCaring.
In that same email, Blanck again threatened legal action against iMediaEthics and its intern reporter, saying unspecified attorneys would be interested in a case against iMediaEthics. “It is readily apparent to me, and will be to the legal team, from whom you are getting your fictitious information,” Blanck wrote. “[…] As an intern, you’ll live and learn.”
|Other Uncorrected Factual Errors in Blanck’s reports: |
Examiner.com reporter also threatens Fire Chief
Stevens County Fire Chief Mike Bucy oversees fire services for the same county where the wildfire took place and the Shepherd’s Way Animal Rescue is located. He told iMediaEthics, “I was also threatened to get sued by the reporter [Blanck] for clarifying on another site about some of the facts.”
Chief Bucy had commented on a blog post by Seattle DogSpot, a local animal blog, about the tent city claims in Blanck’s Examiner.com articles, writing, “A majority of these claims [in the Examiner.com article] were false.”
He continued, “The matter was turned over to the Stevens County Sheriff’s office for further investigation. There was never a tent city nor was there ever an ‘official’ command post at this location (very rarely will a post be set up on private property).”
Chief Bucy was contacted by Blanck in a Facebook message after his comment was posted, asking to confirm the poster was really Chief Bucy. Then she wrote a threatening message directed to him and the author of the blogpost that a “lawsuit will be pending.”
(iMediaEthics followed up on June 6, 2016, and was sent an “Additional Information Report” dated Sept. 3, 2015, by Officer Tina Cannon of the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office. A detective investigated the fundraiser being created based on a non-existent event, but found no evidence of a crime committed by the Aenks.)
“I have had no other contact with Lisa [Blanck] nor was I contacted by an attorney,” Chief Bucy told iMediaEthics via email.
Chief Bucy also confirmed to iMediaEthics that Blanck’s claims of a tent city and a command center for volunteer firefighters on the Shepherd’s Way Animal Rescue property were completely bogus.
“There was no official tent city. There was no evidence of any tent city ever set up on this property (though there might have been a few tents at one point),” Chief Bucy said. “I did drive by there several times. The property in question is up a steep drive and not very big.”
Examiner.com responds, three articles unpublished
Justin Jimenez, Vice President of Editorial for Examiner.com, was apologetic when hearing of the legal threats made by Blanck against Chief Bucy, this reporter intern, and iMediaEthics.
Sincere apologies again on your experience, it is not indicative of the literally thousands of other contributors we have, and is by no means behavior we embrace or condone,” Jimenez wrote in an email to iMediaEthics in mid-April.
“It’s disappointing, and distracts from the great work others on the site are contributing,” he commented.
By mid-June, iMediaEthics noticed all three articles by Blanck on the wildfires were unpublished, with no disclosure to readers why. Jimenez did not respond to iMediaEthics’ follow up query as to why no disclosure accompanied this deletion of three stories.
“Notice of Intent to File” not from a lawyer
Despite Blanck’s threats of lawsuits and legal action, throughout our three month-long reporting process, iMediaEthics was unable to find any public records of any lawsuit filed against media outlets by the Aenks.
A poorly written Notice of Intent to File on plain paper (no law firm letterhead) and riddled with grammatical and spelling errors was forwarded to iMediaEthics from Blanck.
It was not signed by a lawyer but by Allen Aenk himself, co-owner of the Shepherd’s Way Animal Rescue and husband of Carrie Aenk. This “legal notice,” according to Blanck in an email, was sent to both KOMO News and KXYL News. KXLY News did receive the notice, but KOMO News says it did not. Their news reports led to YouCaring’s inquiry to the campaign sponsor about the legitimacy of the campaign, and the campaign’s eventual deletion.
Blanck, among threats and cryptic references, dodged most of iMediaEthics’ specific questions in our eight email exchanges. She stopped responding after May 2nd, and did not reply to a final request for comment sent July 1st.
iMediaEthics also called Allen Aenk after three unanswered emails. “I have been advised by counsel to not talk about it,” Aenk told iMediaEthics by telephone. “Thank you [very] much.” He then hung up. A second phone call, about twenty minutes later, ended the same way. iMediaEthics asked him for the name of his counsel or legal representatives to follow up. “Thanks, but no thanks. Thank you very kindly for your time,” he said, before hanging up.
KXLY News told iMediaEthics, “I can confirm that the Aenks have suggested they may pursue legal action against KXLY, along with other organizations. Accordingly, we’re not in a position to discuss the matter until any legal issues are resolved,” News Director for KXLY News Jerry Post told iMediaEthics in an email. “I will say this: I stand behind KXLY’s coverage of Shepherd’s Way 100%.”
KOMO News informed iMediaEthics they had not received any Notice of Intent to File. “We stand behind the piece, and are unaware of any legal challenges filed regarding our reporting of the story,” Pat Costello, News Director for KOMO News, said to iMediaEthics via email.
Wildfire photo 16 years old, not from 2015 fire
Finally our investigation revealed that two photos were misattributed, misdated, and misidentified. They show fires in California and Wyoming– not in Washington. iMediaethics verified an Associated Press photo was misattributed to “Leighlani Leighton, Team Rescue.”
Associated Press Vice President for Photography, Santiago Lyon, told iMediaethics: “I can confirm this is an AP photograph.” Rich Pedroncelli, an AP photographer, took the above shot at a 2014 California wildfire, not 2015 in Washington state, as was first reported by Seattle Dog Spot.
The above image is a US Department of Agriculture Forest Service wildfire photo from 16 years ago (2000) in Wyoming, not 2015 in Washington. The image was misattributed to Allen Aenk. Babete Anderson, a National Press Officer for the Forest Service confirmed with iMediaEthics in an email it was a Forest Service photo in the public domain. “We do generally ask that users attribute it to the USDA Forest Service, and not credit themselves.”
CORRECTION - July 7, 2016 8:27 PM EST
This article originally said KOMO News first reported the problems with Blanck’s photos. SeattleDogSpot.com was the first to report this. We regret the error. Thank you to Robert Pregulman at Seattle Dog Spot for pointing this out.