Earlier this year, representatives from two major news outlets — CBS News and the New York Times — apologized publicly for what they called failings in their coverage of events leading up to the war in Iraq and their over-reliance on unnamed sources who provided what turned out to be faulty information.
And in mid-2003, the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times forced the resignation of the paper’s two top editors, led to the formation of a readers’ representative office and took a bite out of the newspaper’s reputation.
Less than a year later, USA Today learned that one of its top reporters, Jack Kelley, had invented sources and facts for years.
No single cause is to blame for the rash of faulty or unethical reporting, but there may be one way to prevent it.
Jerry Ceppos, vice president for news for Knight Ridder Inc., told journalism educators during an April speech that they need to take the lead in turning out graduates who know the value of accurate, ethical journalism.
Ceppos said that within a year of his speech, plagiarism had been uncovered at four college newspapers and nine dailies.
“My gut tells me that every newsroom employs plagiarists, or at least (has) staff members who don’t understand what plagiarism is,” he said. Ceppos spoke to members of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) in Cambridge, Mass.
These are not the best of times for reporters and news managers.
Most of the recent news about the news media has been negative.
Public confidence in the media continues to drop.
Even reporters and editors give media performance during the past several years low marks.
The results of a joint project by the Pew Research Center and Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that nearly half the 547 journalists surveyed in March and April said journalism is going in the “wrong direction.”
Despite what appears to be an increase in cases of plagiarism and unethical newsgathering practices, journalism departments at colleges and universities in the United States have for many decades emphasized ethics and accuracy in news coverage.
“Most schools stress accuracy, and nearly all teach ethics,” said Gerald Baldasty, chairman of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.
But like many other educators, Baldasty’s students graduate and enter a 24-hour news business — in newspapers, on Web sites and on television.
And this may affect their attitudes and decisions.
“They graduate into a 24-7 news environment — they’re brand new (in the business), and they see the hyper-competition, the stress to score big, the blockbuster story,” he said.
Ultimately, they may cut corners to meet demands, he said.
To some media observers, factors such as cost-cutting in the newsroom, the unrelenting 24-hour news cycle and an over-reliance on new technology have converged to hinder news gathering and make ethical violations easier to commit for professionals, too.
“There’s a lot more pressure on everyone to perform,” said Bill Steiden, Washington and politics editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have to continually produce something. We have to keep the drumbeat going.”
It apparently was the desire to keep that “drumbeat” going that led the Times to publish stories in 2001, 2002 and 2003 — decisions that editors later regretted.
In an editor’s note to readers published on May 26, the newspaper said it should have been more skeptical about stories quoting unnamed Iraqi exiles that outlined the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction. A more recent editorial delivered the same message.
Two months earlier, veteran CBS reporter Leslie Stahl apologized on “60 Minutes” to viewers for what she termed her gullibility in accepting the word of some sources in her coverage of events leading up to war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the pressure to improve the bottom line has led many media organizations to cut budgets and staffs. Fewer people do more work.
“We’re urged to be hyper-productive — to get results right now,” Steiden said.
Some news managers define “news” as information that can be released immediately — not in a few days, a few weeks or a few months.
Reporters, editors and news directors have little time to work on longer enterprise stories that cannot be done by one person in one or two days. If information is not readily available on their computer screens, many student and professional reporters simply are not encouraged to seek it out. And the widespread use of e-mail, cell phones and the Internet makes “cheating” easier — just ask Kelley and Blair, who used the technology to deceive editors about their whereabouts and activities.
As Steiden noted, the availability of hundreds of online news sources also makes it easy to plagiarize.
But Baldasty believes other more subtle factors may lure journalists into taking the easy way out when reporting — a business that demands big stories and with a “culture of prizes” that offers prestige and money for them.
In addition, during the past two decades, more college newspapers have become independent of departments of journalism. And unlike “laboratory” newspapers, the independents are not connected with journalism classes.
Baldasty appreciates the value of these independent newspapers, but they may also at times lead to immature or self-indulgent reporting, he said.
Jan Slater, associate director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, is a member of a site visitation team that grants accreditation to journalism units. He said that journalism departments get pulled in many directions and operate in a Catch-22 situation: They must train students to be ethical and accurate, but they must still turn out versatile students who will need skills in print, broadcast and Web reporting.
Unlike those of 10 or 20 years ago, most journalism students do not consider themselves simply “newspaper” or “broadcast” majors but instead have interests that cross a spectrum including reporting and writing and even public relations.
“Students have more varied interests and career goals,” Slater said. “They don’t necessarily want to be ’just’ a reporter on a newspaper, for instance.”
Consequently, when it comes to curriculum, schools get pulled in many directions.
Standards set by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication state that journalism students should be taught the fundamentals of journalism, such as ethics, accuracy and basic reporting and editing skills. But in addition, journalism departments try to produce graduates who can fill the specific needs of employers.
“We’re bombarded by requests from alums and from the industry,” Slater said. ” ’I want someone who knows reporting, who knows media management, who knows the Internet.’ Schools want to keep their core missions, but they also want to meet industry needs. That can be a stretch.”
Slater and Baldasty agree that many men and women who take undergraduate journalism courses were raised with the Internet and can use it as a crutch when reporting. They may rely too much on online interviews and online sources and some even fear leaving the newsroom to talk to people and gather information.
“Our students have grown up with the technology,” Slater said. “Even professionals say they have to discipline themselves to get out of the newsroom (to get information).”
Indeed, reporters and editors have for the past decade debated the value of the technology in newsgathering. Most say that it makes their lives much easier because it ensures accessibility to some records and background information.
But many also say that such readily available sources are seductive because they can hide the fact that good reporting almost always requires some sweat.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, believes that an over-reliance on technology by students and young journalists, ironically, has given an edge to broadcast journalists.
He said that television journalists almost always need to leave the newsroom to get stories, and thanks to advances in broadcast technology — light, mobile and efficient equipment — it is easy for them to seek stories while working outside the newsroom.
On the other hand, the wealth of information on the Internet ties many print and online reporters to their desks.
They do not necessarily need to get “images,” so they have less incentive to leave their desks, he said.
“Television journalists are out there in the community,” he said. “And there you do get more and better stories.”
Mark Tatge, Midwest bureau chief for Forbes magazine in Chicago, said some news executives — motivated by the bottom line — wrongly assume that improved technology means news outlets need fewer bodies to do the work.
“Some things can’t be automated,” said Tatge, who has worked as a business and investigative reporter at daily newspapers in Denver, Dallas and Cleveland.
“The demands for people are even greater as news gathering gets more complex,” he said. ” ’Doing more with less.’ That’s a euphemism for cost-cutting.”
To Toledo Blade reporter Joe Mahr, old-fashioned legwork is still the key to solid reporting, despite the world’s quickly changing media landscape.
Mahr is part of a three-person team that won a Pulitzer Prize and a SIgma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting this year for a series of stories about atrocities committed during the Vietnam War by Tiger Force, an elite Army platoon.
Online sources “help you get the day-to-day stuff like addresses, rosters, things like that,” he said. “But you need to talk to people, get them in your confidence, convince them they can trust you.”
He called Tiger Force “an old-fashioned project, a matter of working hard and putting in the time. There was nothing fancy about it.”
Mahr, who has been in the newspaper business about 10 years, realizes that he and his colleagues were fortunate that Blade officials gave them the time and manpower to work on the project. It took nearly eight months of reporting and involved many more staff members than the three who wrote the series, he said.
“There was some pressure not to spend money,” he said. “But management wanted a good story. They could have shut it down, but they gave us the time — more time than other papers would have given us.”
The story also required the participation of the newspaper’s attorneys, who checked and double-checked the stories and who aggressively sought access to public records.
The payoff was the top honors in journalism and the first Pulitzer Prize for the Blade.
Mahr, 31, is careful not to allow Internet sources to replace solid reporting, even though the Internet has been available as a reporting tool for much of his career. But it may be difficult to teach such patience to college journalism students, who have grown up with e-mail and a 24-hour news cycle.
Meanwhile, a national study published earlier this year in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator shows journalism enrollment at colleges hit its high point in the fall of 2002.
The study by communication researchers Lee Becker, Tudor Vlad, Jisu Huh and Nancy R. Mace showed that 182,218 undergraduate journalism majors enrolled at the nation’s colleges and universities in 2002, up 6 percent from the previous year. The researchers expect the number to continue to increase, and they concluded that the economic downturn of the past few years did not hurt undergraduate journalism enrollment.
That kind of enrollment requires journalism schools to offer a lot of classes. And accredited journalism programs do have considerable leeway in course offerings after they follow the curriculum guidelines laid out by the ACEJMC, Slater said. But few regularly offer courses in such specialized topics such as investigative reporting. Most recent graduates are not assigned to do investigative work at entry-level jobs, and most journalism departments do not have the manpower to offer such classes on a regular basis.
Mahr, a 1994 graduate of Ohio University’s journalism school, learned the basic foundations of reporting and writing when he was a journalism student, he said. But he also believes that more regular offerings of courses such as enterprise reporting could instill in students an interest in that type of reporting.
“There’s a lot of investigative reporting in day-to-day reporting,” he said. “If there were more courses in it that would do things like give students the history of it and offer case studies, it might whet their appetites.”
Marilyn Greenwald is a professor of journalism in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and the co-author, with Joseph Bernt, of “The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment” (Iowa State University Press, 2000).