Ask editors at the top newspapers in the nation about potential fixes to ethical lapses in newsrooms, and you’ll get some surprising answers — from offering well-publicized “1-800” telephone numbers for readers to vent complaints, to offering public praise for staffers who identify the highest number of needed corrections.
“I rue the day Watergate happened and that damn movie,” said Allan M. Siegel, managing editor and standards editor with The New York Times, referring to “All the President’s Men.”
“It became a real issue whether you were the No. 1-ranked newspaper; to be first; to use anonymous sources. It hurts us to this day.”
Siegel, a 44-year Times veteran, along with top editors from USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, during a panel at the SPJ National Convention talked about fixes they’ve tried to make in their ethically challenged newsrooms.
Several blamed the popular narrative storytelling style that relies on creating dialogue and scene setting, often replacing facts and details as was the case in the many articles written by Jack Kelley at USA Today.
Siegel called it a “dangerous practice” when “facts are lost in the humanizing of the narrative.”
At The Times, a number of new practices have been implemented since Jayson Blair’s propensity to fabricate news was uncovered. The newspaper:
•Added six people who have a primary responsibility for fact checking resumes.
• Provides additional training for middle managers.
• Emphasizes that managers write “serious and conscientious” performance reviews.
• Uses the Socratic method of ethics and value training in the newsroom.
• Added a “public editor” to deal directly with readers. However, the public editor does not write a weekly column to the staff or public such as an ombudsman.
Brian Gallagher, executive editor of USA Today, said the internal review of deposed writer Jack Kelley’s articles went back to 1995. Gallagher said Kelley was a “breed apart with a psychological component missing.”
“If you run across one of those, God help you,” Gallagher said of the devastating effect Kelley had on the morale of the USA Today newsroom. The real critical element to sniffing out ethical problems is “a savvy editor with time to do his job,” he said.
Gallagher noted that with a highly competitive news staff of 1,200 people, competition between departments could create a “conspiracy of silence,” especially when managers want to recruit from other departments.
The Wall Street Journal discovered that sending out an occasional “accuracy survey” to sources quoted in a story (a practice followed by the late Gene Pulliam at The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News) gave people “room to complain about the small mistakes.”
What did people complain about most often?
“Shortening a title,” said Byron “Barney” Calame, deputy managing editor at The Wall Street Journal and past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
The Journal suffered its ethics lapse years before the Kelley and Blair cases, when columnist R. Foster Winans was dismissed by the paper and later convicted of federal charges for tipping investors to contents of his stock tips column prior to publication.
At The Journal, critical emphasis has been placed on improving the editing structure of the newspaper, including the appointment of staff-based task forces to identify critical weaknesses and then redefining the editing structure.
Calame has also started a database to keep track of individual corrections. He also is using a public praise program to reward the department reporting the highest percentage of errors, not the lowest percentage.
All three newspapers reported an increased scrutiny on the use of anonymous sources.
But Siegel said that exceptions would always be made, especially when jobs are on the line and government practices are shrouded in secrecy — such as grand jury proceedings.
“Most of what you know about government is from anonymous sources,” he said. “They are reliable and they know.”
He referred specifically to Senate and House committee staffs in Washington, D.C.
All told, most believed that their newsrooms were made tougher and stronger in the wake of recent scandals.
“The remedy for bad journalism is often more journalism,” Siegel said.
Kyle Elyse Niederpruem is a past president of SPJ. She is vice president, Hirons & Company Communications Inc., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.