The day after I discussed with students at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa the issue of media credibility, plagiarism and falsifying news reports, I got calls from two reporters seeking comments on the demise of USA Today’s Jack Kelley.
One call came from a reporter at The Daily Orange, the student-produced newspaper at Syracuse University. The other came from a reporter who covers technology for WSJ.com, the Wall Street Journal’s online product.
The student reporter wanted to talk about the broader issue of journalistic indiscretion, using Kelley as a starting point.
The reporter from WSJ.com wanted to talk specifically about technology and catching journalism’s cheaters.
Not surprisingly, the junior college class discussion and my interviews with the two reporters covered a lot of similar ground.
And why not?
Not telling the truth – as in making up news stories or parts of them – and stealing – as in plagiarism – have been wrong forever. Most of us hear that in early adolescence, and most of us pay the consequences (throughout life) when we get caught.
That’s the way it is and should be.
It has become much easier in the news business to do both: the stealing because of the breadth of information accessible in an instant via the Web, and the lying and stealing because for the most part, editors have been naive enough to believe (including me) that people who dedicate their lives to the business of news gathering would never do it.
But here we are, and here it is.
And if you are like me, you have come to realize that for the news business, cleaning up the mess is going to be like Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez or Cherynobol.
The damage is done and the cost enormous.
And there’s no stopping it from happening again.
The online reporter posed this question: Do you think plagiarism-detecting software will become a standard at newspapers?
My response: “If there’s a market for it.”
Seems there is and will be.
The reporter told me that a professor developed the software used to scrutinize Kelley’s work – as a means to catch plagiarizing college students.
And to think when I taught at Troy State University during the late 1980s, as adviser to the student newspaper I used to get an earful from English professors because the paper ran classified ads for companies that sold research papers.
Yes, I suppose that along with spellcheck, grammar check, AP stylecheck, mathcheck and the rest of the bundled word processing software features, we could toss in “thiefcheck” “or “liarcheck.”
But what software will catch TV reporters who stage news video?
I found another nonsoftware “gatekeeper” idea on the Web.
This comes from a posting on the Poynter Institute’s site from Romenesko:
“Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editor Jim Witt tells his staff: ‘I have decided that we will select some local stories every month and do a vigorous check of how those stories were written and researched. We’ll get in touch with every source in the story to see if they were quoted accurately and if every bit of writing in the story is either original or adequately sourced.’ Ombud David House says as far as can be determined, no other newspaper in the United States has a similar policy.”
But when I started as a reporter in 1980 at the Decatur (Ill.) Herald & Review, news stories were selected randomly and a form sent to sources asking them questions similar to those Witt intends to use.
In fact, if I dug through enough old files, I could probably find the form because as I moved from reporter to editor, I thought about using it at papers where I worked.
Catching cheaters, it seems, is like fashion. Wait 20 years, and something is bound to come back in style.
Finally, in the class discussion and in the chat with the reporters, what became equally important to “how?” and “how much” was “why?”
Why would someone steal, cheat or lie, especially someone operating at the top of the journalistic food chain?
With that question came the same answers I hear and read constantly: newsroom pressures, pressure for exclusives, reputations to uphold, competition, burnout, etc., etc.
The litany of reasons always comes with this caveat: “I am not defending it. But that is the reality of the business.”
I tell people all the time that rationalizing is better than having sex because you can do it hundreds of times a day and it always feels good.
I also tell them that I heard that line or something similar to it in a movie, “The Big Chill,” I think.
Yes, it seems some journalists have taken to stealing lines from movies, too – “Caddy Shack,” I think.
Finally, this from Romenesko and written by columnist Christopher P. Winner about something told to him by Jim Naughton, then city editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Be careful,” Jim Naughton said. “If you didn’t write it, we’ll know it.”
If only that always was true.
Gordon “Mac” McKerral, SPJ president, lives in Tampa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.