Who can repair journalism's image?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The past year has been the most miserable in the history of modern American journalism. First came Jayson Blair, the brash young New York Times reporter who made up details, pilfered prose and repeatedly snookered his bosses. Then, like a long row of click-clacking dominoes, a rogue's gallery of other journalists fell to accusations of plagiarism and fakery.

Reporters in Colorado, Georgia, and Missouri allegedly stole material from other publications. In Houston, a sportswriter copied one of his own old columns, and a Chicago Tribune correspondent changed a source's name to protect him.

And in the biggest blow to the industry since Mr. Blair, USA Today last month exposed star foreign correspondent Jack Kelley's long history of deceit in his travels from Cuba to Israel.

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"It's bad right now," says Kansas University journalism professor Peggy Kuhr. "It's shocking."

With their credibility battered as never before, newspapers began appointing committees and reaching out to readers and sources. But few editors are making major changes in the way they do business.

Plagiarism-detection software, which helped USA Today investigate Kelley, is only just now making an appearance in a couple of newsrooms.

And just one newspaper has adopted an intensive fact-checking system, long a staple at national magazines.

Some editors fear they'll obliterate the spirit of teamwork and trust in newsrooms if they go too far, says Carol Nunnelley, a former managing editor at the Birmingham News in Alabama, who now runs an organization that holds roundtables on newspaper credibility issues.

"Not everyone is sure that what we have encountered so far should lead to a much more suspicious mind-set and a much more legalistic monitoring," she says.

Then there's the issue of the expense required to implement such solutions.

"It's really a matter of dollars and cents," says Don Wycliff, public editor at The Chicago Tribune. "Do you create a whole new corps in the industry because there are a few miscreants? I'm not sure."

Indeed, the number of confirmed wrongdoers is small.

Overall, scandals have hit just a tiny percentage of America's 1,400 daily newspapers since Blair's story exploded in May 2003. Outside the media world, only Blair's name has gained anything close to household-name status.

Hardly anyone has heard of the rest of the recent batch of wrongdoers, including an Associated Press reporter who sprinkled his stories with the fake names of some 55 organizations and sources before being caught in September 2002.

Still, the public is watching, says David House, ombudsman at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Whether readers recall details is one thing. What they do have is a perception that something is very wrong in American journalism."

The Star-Telegram, which fired a reporter who went on to plagiarize stories at Georgia's Macon Telegraph, has taken perhaps the most far- reaching step of all.

Earlier this month, editors announced they will launch random fact checks of stories that have appeared in the newspaper. The checks will go far beyond the simple surveys that the Star-Telegram - and many other newspapers - send out to sources after stories appear, Mr. House says.

Readers "need to know that we're taking steps to correct the situation as best we can," he says. "We're going to be fact-checking every fact, every detail top to bottom. It will be a time-consuming, laborious piece of work, but we believe it's absolutely essential."

Another newspaper stung by plagiarism is turning to a technological solution. Editors at The Hartford Courant in Connecticut are testing plagiarism-detection software on opinion-page commentaries after a university president wrote a piece peppered with material taken from elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in another credibility-minded move, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers are promising to rely less on unnamed sources.

That's not enough, says Ms. Kuhr, the Kansas journalism professor. Newspapers need to look at more than just their interactions with sources and readers, she says. In the aftermath of The New York Times and USA Today scandals, colleagues said they had seen warning signs of trouble in both Blair and Kelley, but no one in power acted on their concerns.

"People ... higher up in the ranks are probably not paying attention to what's going on," Kuhr says. "They're getting away from being reporters themselves."

Even if bosses are alert and reporters are honest, however, newspapers will still have a long way to go to win over skeptical readers.

"My impression from my contact with readers both in person and via e-mail and telephone suggests to me that we always start behind the eight ball anyway," says Mr. Wycliff of The Chicago Tribune. "People suspect that we've got an ax to grind, we've got an agenda, we are unrelievedly liberal or relentlessly conservative."

"They don't believe from the beginning that we're playing square," he says.

Ultimately, some of those who monitor the media suggest, detecting lies may prove a less challenging task than changing perceptions.

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