James E. Shelledy could be forgiven if his ability to trust reporters plummeted after an ethical scandal in April rocked the newspaper he led for 12 years.
Shelledy resigned as editor of The Salt Lake Tribune on May 1 after saying he had mishandled the controversy that erupted when two reporters admitted selling unpublished salacious rumors about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case to the National Enquirer for $20,000.
“I feel saddened and angry that these two reporters damaged themselves, their colleagues and the reputation of The Tribune with their conduct,” Shelledy said. “My trust in reporters was betrayed. I relied too much on that instinct.”
The Salt Lake Tribune case is one of several ethical breaches in the last few years that has catapulted the relationship between editor and reporter – and between newspaper and its public – into newsroom conversations throughout the country. Stephen Glass fabricated all or parts of two-thirds of the articles he wrote for The New Republic. Jayson Blair’s stunning legacy of fabrication and plagiarism toppled New York Times senior news executives Howell Raines and Gerald M. Boyd. Journalists who have committed egregious ethical errors have caused the nation’s newsrooms to refocus on some of the fundamental dynamics of the profession: the unique relationship of trust that necessarily exists between editor and reporter, the vulnerable system of fact-checking and accuracy control, and the fragile bond with readers who have long said they have little reason to believe what the media have to say.
In fact, a month after leaving The Salt Lake Tribune, Shelledy said his instinctive trust in reporters’ abilities to handle themselves professionally and report the story accurately and ethically is unwavering.
“I would always instinctively trust reporters until the point I had evidence to the contrary,” he said. “I had 150 people in that newsroom. One hundred and forty-eight of them handled themselves professionally, to the best of my knowledge. It seems unfair to the 148 if I allow the actions of two to taint my trust level in them. But instinctive trust is not synonymous with blind trust.”
With the Blair scandal in May, followed that same month with accusations that The New York Times’ Rick Bragg over-used uncredited interns and stringers, basic questions of how reporters do their work have arisen: Has the traditional relationship of trust between reporter and editor eroded in what seems to be an ever-accelerating number of cases of plagiarism, misrepresentation and fabrication? Should reporters be as autonomous as they historically have been? Should they be their own fact-checkers? Or are structural changes needed in today’s newsrooms to ensure a better system of checks and balances?
A RELATIONSHIP GROUNDED IN TRUST
San Jose Mercury News columnist Dennis Rockstroh, a 30-plus year veteran of the profession, was headed to the coast to interview anglers for a story on whether fish feel pain when an alarming question struck him: Would his editors believe he was there or would they think that he, a la Jayson Blair, conjured up sources and settings from a distant location? The thought intensified when the dispenser of parking stubs – useful proof for even the most suspicious editor – was closed.
Walking back to his car after interviewing about a half-dozen people, Rockstroh had a second alarming thought: What if his editors wanted to confirm that he talked with his sources and couldn’t find them? What if he was publicly accused of misrepresentation and fabrication?
“It’s not just Jayson Blair,” Rockstroh said. “There have been a bunch of cases where reporters had quotes from people they didn’t talk to.”
He returned to the parking area and began recording license plate numbers.
“I wrote one down and then I said, ‘This is ridiculous, what am I doing?’ I’m doing this because of the new atmosphere we are in.”
That new atmosphere, Rockstroh says, occurs “every time there’s a Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke (who won a Pulitzer in 1981 after fabricating the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict) or Steve Glass. Editors have to look around their own environment and be alert. We can’t ignore it. We have to understand it.”
Some editors agree that the Blairs and Cookes and Glasses may have created a new atmosphere – at least in the short term.
“It’ll be a very foolish editor who doesn’t take all of this as a caution to be more exacting in their questioning of reporters,” said the Chicago Tribune’s Public Editor Don Wycliff. “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of others end up learning from their own.”
Some have called it “prosecutorial editing” in which editors ask reporters tough and demanding questions about stories and sources, especially on significant or accusatory stories. Given the nature of the reporting process, a fundamental relationship of trust necessarily exists between editor and reporter. But, some say, that trust is not blind.
John Temple, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, sees an adversarial component to the relationship between editor and reporter.
“I hope the single biggest thing the Blair case does is to remind editors to pay attention and not to give reporters that incredible level of trust – not because we don’t trust reporters, but because we do better journalism when we work together.”
Temple and others argue that the best journalism is practiced in newsrooms where editors don’t hesitate to reject or delay stories that reporters are advocating.
“On the one hand, you want to be encouraging, supportive, raising the spirit of the reporter, helping them achieve their goals,” Temple said. “On the other hand, you can’t get so swept up in the chase for a story that you can’t stand back and ask tough questions: Do we have enough information? Where did it come from? Are there problems? Your ultimate allegiance is to the reader and the integrity of the publication.”
Reporters, for their part, say they welcome the scrutiny that tough editing provides.
“I want them to ask me tough questions,” said Chicago Tribune metro reporter John McCormick. “And I want then to call me at home at night to make sure I didn’t overlook something or make some kind of stupid mistake.”
Editors and reporters alike say tough editing is a basic tenet of good journalism that often gets the short shrift given the pressures of shrinking resources and daily deadlines. Rather than feeling second-guessed or mistrusted, reporters say heightened awareness after the recent spate of ethical crises has increased communication with editors who often are too busy to give reporters the scrutiny and feedback they crave.
If the nature of the reportorial process necessitates a fundamental level of trust and communication, it also requires a level of autonomy among reporters that appears unlikely to change in the wake of the ethical crises.
By definition, says Dallas Morning News Managing Editor Tommy Miller, “reporting is a Lone Ranger type of job.”
Simply put, reporters must be autonomous if the newspaper is going to get published, says Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Reston, Va.
“Reporters are our front line, and we have to give them the freedom to do their jobs,” he said. “And we can’t fact-check every story because the process, fiscally, can’t afford it. Every day? With the speed and volume of material that passes through the newspaper? Not feasible.”
If there is a point where scrutiny may be increased – and autonomy may be decreased – it could well be in the probationary period for new reporters, some editors suggest. And that change may well be exacerbated by the types of assignments probationary reporters often receive – verifying comments made by witnesses at a crime scene or visitors strolling through the state fair are more difficult than verifying comments made by the mayor or the superintendent of schools.
Editors may be very comfortable with reporters they know well, whose records are firmly established and whose risk factors are not high, says Cleveland Plain Dealer Editor Douglas Clifton. And while it’s unlikely that editors will react with rampant suspicion, “the getting-to-know-you phase of the relationship between editor and reporter will take on a different tone and tenor,” he says.
But if veteran reporters feel a sense of being “watched,” it’s not coming from their newsroom editors and colleagues, says St. Paul Pioneer Press schools reporter John Welsh.
“Watched by the community,” Welsh said. “Yes, that’s the fallout from Jayson Blair.”
GETTING IT RIGHT
Cases such as Blair and Glass are anomalies, editors say, who serve to remind the industry not to stray too far afield from the basic principles of accuracy, fairness and balance. But from a professional – if not practical – standpoint, few are suggesting that reporters are ill-suited to be their own fact-checkers.
“By far and away, fact-checking is the responsibility of the individual reporter, supplemented by the assigning editors and the copy editors,” said Linda Grist Cunningham, executive editor of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. “I would prefer that we had a flotilla of additional fact-checkers to give us an extra layer of protection. But I’d be disingenuous if I said we had them. We don’t.”
Still, newspapers throughout the country are rethinking their policies and procedures to ensure that a case such as Blair “doesn’t happen here.” From use of “accuracy letters” to procedures for tracking errors to policies on unnamed sources, newsrooms are reassessing how they conduct the day-to-day business of gathering and reporting the news.
After the Blair case, the St. Paul Pioneer Press began sending form letters to people who have been included in the newspaper’s stories. The letters ask people to comment on the accuracy of the quotes, headlines, facts and photo captions, if any. They also ask whether facts were omitted, whether the source was represented fairly, whether the story was in context and whether there are additional issues the newspapers should be covering. Information obtained will be entered into a spreadsheet so trends can be tracked and, if necessary, problems can be remedied.
“The most chilling part (of the Blair case) for me was the failure of readers to call and complain when they saw themselves in stories by a reporter they had never talked to or when they saw mistakes, big and small,” Editor Vicki Gowler wrote to readers May 18.
Accuracy letters are hardly new to the industry. Newspapers throughout the country have used them for decades, off and on, as a way to measure accuracy, provide feedback to reporters and show accountability to the community. The Plain Dealer’s Clifton used them at the Miami Herald in the 1970s and began using them at the Plain Dealer in June as part of a 2-year-old accuracy initiative. Return rates are typically about 75 percent to 80 percent, Clifton said, and readers generally rate stories as fair and accurate.
Asking for reader response “confirms that we care about fairness and accuracy, not just from our point of view, but from their point of view,” said the Pioneer Press’ Gowler. “We have to worry about this. We work hard to provide objective, fair, accurate news, and we’re not getting credit from the public for it. Something is wrong here.”
The Pioneer Press sent accuracy letters to readers in the 1980s. When Gowler announced their return, veteran reporters were without qualms because they knew the process was supportive, she said. Some newer reporters, on the other hand, were concerned about how the process would be handled.
Schools reporter Welsh agreed that reporters at the Pioneer Press, which has a circulation of about 200,000, have “a certain acceptance” of the practice. They trust editors to put criticism in context – such as the respondent who complains that information was omitted from a story that was capped at 15 inches.
But Welsh said reporters in smaller markets might view them with a greater sense of trepidation. And reporters who have had strained relationships with their editors may question how information obtained in accuracy letters will be used.
In addition to accuracy letters, some newspapers are strengthening their error-tracking procedures in hopes of identifying who’s making mistakes and why. The intent, editors say, is to identify problems and to diagnose, rectify and – ultimately – prevent errors from publication. The Rocky Mountain News, as one example of many, has an elaborate error-tracking system coupled with a corrections procedure that, post Jayson Blair, has included the direct telephone number of the person who handles corrections so no caller is derailed by newsroom bureaucracy.
But perhaps the single topic receiving the most attention in the nation’s newsrooms deals with the use of unnamed sources. Newsrooms that had scrupulously adhered to well-crafted policies and procedures have been validated, editors say, and newsrooms that had become casual or lax in their practices have heard the warning that the Blair case sounded.
In some cases, written policies about the use of unnamed sources have been redistributed and reinforced. In others, oral policies have been discussed during staff meetings and brown-bag training sessions.
In one case, an astonishing new policy was established. After a spokesperson said The New York Times had “no formal policy” for handling anonymous sources, Rocky Mountain News Editor Temple developed a policy of his own: Any New York Times story that uses anonymous sources must be approved in advance by the managing editor or editor, or in their absence, the senior editor in charge of the newsroom before it can be published in the Rocky Mountain News. What many had considered the best newspaper in the world now had become the subject of a formalized policy of scrutiny and review at the Rocky Mountain News.
“It was not a hard decision,” Temple said. “The Times couldn’t tell me it was putting these stories through a filter I’m comfortable with. I’m responsible for this newspaper. I’m not saying we won’t use New York Times stories that use anonymous sources. But we’re not doing it in a knee-jerk, rubber-stamp sort of way.”
Most editors say the policies of anonymous sources have not changed as a result of the recent scandals. At the heart of it, use of unnamed sources is discouraged in all but the rarest of cases. Those cases must meet specific criteria, all options and alternatives must be explored, editors must be part of the discussion, and sources’ names must be disclosed if editors ask for them. In some cases, editors are authorized to contact the sources themselves. In some, reporters are not permitted to agree to anonymity without the prior approval of an editor.
What has changed, editors say, is that newsrooms throughout the country now have a renewed commitment to follow the existing policies and the traditional tenets of good journalism.
“People have all of these formulations and New Wave thoughts about what could and should be done,” said Caesar Andrews, editor of Gannett News Service, Tysons Corner, Va. “I don’t want to oversimplify, but I can’t help saying that if we all can keep recommitting to quality journalism, we will be focusing on the right things.”
A FRAGILE BOND
The “real meltdown” in journalism today is that only one-third of the public believes what it reads in newspapers and sees on television news, says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, which represents 20,000 reporters in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada.
“What reporters sell is their credibility,” Foley said, “and if one member of the press is questioned, it calls us all into question. We’re in a climate where the public is very cynical about what they hear and read. And we don’t survive if that continues.”
Some journalists suggest that high-profile cases such as Jayson Blair have less effect on the public than the day-to-day operations of the local news organizations.
“Did we spell Aunt Martha’s name right in the obituary? Are we giving the correct answers to the crossword puzzle? Is the weather forecast accurate? Are you killing any comic strips? These are the things that tick readers off on a daily basis – much more than these errors of the century,” said former Salt Lake Tribune Editor Shelledy.
A. David Gordon, emeritus professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-author of the book, “Controversies in media ethics,” takes it a step further. Changes made in the wake of the Blair case could help the public learn how the process works so it can hold media accountable in ways that are constructive, he said. Newspapers could create more reader representative positions. They could sponsor more town meetings and panels to discuss how things are done well and how they’re done poorly. E-mail and letters from the editor could be used to increase communication between the newspaper and its community.
“There’s a tendency in newsrooms to get insular,” Gordon said. “To some degree we’re talking about a culture change. There should be an awareness that doing business in the same old way will not keep the public on our side.”
The public has long been suspect of media, just more pointedly so these days, says Gannett’s Andrews.
“Many people wonder why the media types are so shocked and surprised by these cases,” he said. “[The public’s] mindset is, ‘Isn’t this what a whole lot of you do?’ “
News operations need “more due diligence day-in and day-out” because – as devastating as egregious ethical scandals can be – they are not at the heart of the credibility issues that plague journalism today, Andrews said.
If anything, he says, Jayson Blair validates the public’s concerns that were already there: concerns related to accuracy, perceptions of fairness, the history of a given news product in a given market, and the relationship between newspaper, newsroom and the public regarding coverage of demographically diverse communities.
“The basic issues were not created at the feet of The New York Times scandal,” Andrews said. “The basic issues are: Do I trust it? Do I believe it? Is it fair? Does it affect me? The challenge is there. And it always was.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.