Each time I hear a story about an errant journalist who has fabricated the facts in stories, it makes me cringe. I learned about The New York Times and USA Today incidents while traveling for the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). I was angry because I am convinced that the vast majority of journalists work hard to be accurate. We see journalism as a calling in which we inform the public and “give voice to the voiceless.”
But when people hear these stories, they get a very different impression. We become journalists who cannot be trusted. I can’t believe to what extent some journalists will go for effect.
Jack Kelley, a foreign correspondent and 21-year-journalist at USA Today, was nominated for Pulitzers five times. The newspapers’ recent investigation of his work found problems in many of his stories. “Significant parts of one of Kelley’s most gripping stories, an eyewitness account of a suicide bombing that helped make him a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, are untrue. Kelley told readers he saw the bomber. But the man described could not have been the bomber.”
In Jayson Blair’s case, he appears to have lifted passages from a story written by a woman that he served a New York Times internship with about five years ago. She is a journalist in Texas now and wrote about a single mother whose only son, her only child, was missing in action in Iraq and finally found dead. The details were so much like those in Macarena Hernandez’s story in the San Antonio Express-News that it wasn’t clear whether Blair ever had spoken with the mother.
Other stories were questioned, too. His accounts of the sniper shootings around Washington, D.C., were “dead wrong,” according to a law enforcement official.
Why? Is it because of newsroom pressure to come up with the biggest and best story? Is it an effort to get the adoration that stems from that great story? Do they become addicted once getting away with it and go back for more tantalizing details? Was affirmative action a factor in Blair’s case?
Who knows for sure? But, there seem to be some similarities. Blair and Kelly appear to be bright personable people who were ambitious and enjoyed being in the limelight. Their misdeeds seemed to be habitual, leading one to wonder whether it got easier to make up details and stories over time. In fact, sources had called and written to complain about their work in the past, but they continued on.
They did not readily acknowledge their wrongdoings even when confronted. They held fast to their stories and maintained their veracity until investigations by their newspapers weakened their stand. Kelley even wrote a script for an interpreter who he claimed would substantiate some accounts of his reporting.
Some wondered whether affirmative action was an issue in the case of Jayson Blair. Probably not. Blair was described as a charming person who liked to chum up with senior editors and talk about his stories. The same was the case with Jack Kelley.
Editors and writers may have ethics in their hearts, but we may not talk about it enough or lay down the parameters. These two incidents rise to the top because of their magnitude; unfortunately, there are other cases that don’t hit the national spotlight.
If any good came from these misdeeds, it is the fact that many newspapers used the accounts to mount discussions and workshops in newsrooms to tell staff the newspaper’s position on ethics and values. Discussing what is accepted or not has become the focus for many. We also must ask questions about how information is obtained or for clarification.
Our position is incorporated into policies that are anchored in our database. We generally steer clear of unnamed sources because the anonymity can provide cover for erroneous information. When we do use those sources we discuss it and make certain that an editor knows the identity of the anonymous source.
We don’t condone making up stories, plagiarism or theft. It is hard to uphold the rights of people if we violate them.
These ethics and values are the bedrock of our profession. If you know that an approach is wrong, don’t do it. If you decide after the fact that you shouldn’t have, talk with an editor and decide a course together.
We must uphold the principles of our profession. If we don’t, who will?
Karla Garrett Harshaw is editor of the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun and senior editor of Cox Community Newspapers. She is president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.