A newsroom detour on path to truth

Editors and publishers of America's daily newspapers, meeting in annual convention here last week, had scheduled a formal session to consider the topic: "Newsroom ethics and standards."

It was a timely piece of planning.

On the convention's eve, USA Today's editor, Karen Jurgensen, suddenly resigned following a journalistic scandal over fabrications in the reporting of one of the paper's top correspondents, Jack Kelley. This, coming after a similar scandal at The New York Times last year that toppled its two top editors, was a bombshell of shock-and-awe proportion.

Not only did it become the centerpiece of the planned ethics session, but it was the daily buzz of the gossipy conversation that takes place in the corridors at these affairs.

Ms. Jurgensen's departure was followed by the exit of other top USA Today editors, and the issue of a scathing report by an independent panel of outside editors. They found lax supervision and editing of Mr. Kelley's work as a foreign correspondent that enabled him to publish fabricated and plagiarized reports during a period of more than a decade. These included an interview with Elian Gonzalez's father in Cuba and a visit to Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Especially disturbing was the report's finding that criticism of Kelley's work, from both within and without the paper, was dismissed by senior editors because of his star status.

USA Today has the largest circulation in the country. The New York Times is the most prestigious. The scandals that have overtaken each of them in less than a year, as well as malfeasance by journalists on smaller newspapers, suggest that American journalism may be losing its way.

Don't misunderstand me. For every Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today there are thousands of decent journalists at hundreds of newspapers around the country plying their profession conscientiously and honorably. The problem is that sensational professional crimes by a few bad actors raise public suspicion about all practitioners of journalism.

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told the student-produced convention newspaper last week that the public has already displayed a lack of trust in newspapers. "The most disturbing element of what happened with the Jayson Blair incident," he said, "was the fact that the people he talked about in his stories didn't call" to report discrepancies. When the subjects of Mr. Blair's articles were contacted and questioned, most replied that they thought all newspapers "did that," Mr. Sulzberger said. That was his biggest concern.

Sulzberger's concerns are borne out by a Pew Research Center survey last year that found 58 percent of the public believed journalists did not care about complaints and inaccuracies. Almost 22 percent thought the practices Blair employed were used frequently by newspapers.

What to do about all this?

Editors and publishers here had various thoughts. Among them:

• Editors should initiate immediate "audits" of their newsrooms to determine whether conditions exist for an ethical breakdown.

• More newspapers should appoint "ombudsmen" to hear reader complaints.

• Editors should do more checking with the subjects of stories in their newspapers for an assessment of reporters' accuracy.

• Résumés of new hires should be more closely vetted.

• A West Point-style honor system should be encouraged, making it mandatory for reporters suspicious of colleagues to raise red flags with editors about ethics. (Though some argued that this would undermine the same trust and integrity required in the newsroom that a newspaper must maintain with its readers.)

Sadly, this betrayal of trust we have recently seen in the newspaper profession is also abroad in other pursuits and professions. As newspapers have been swift to chronicle, students have cheated, university presidents have unethically financed their football stars, corporate executives have defrauded their shareholders, accountants have shortchanged the tax collectors, and officials at various levels of government have lied.

Though some people misbehave and are guilty of malfeasance, most people don't, and aren't. Unless we are to lose faith in all mankind, I have to believe that, for most people, honesty comes as naturally as breathing.

That goes for journalists, too. But even if the rest of the world did wrong, journalists shouldn't. Their calling is one of public service. Theirs must be a quest for truth and a passion for publishing it in the public interest. When they become wrongdoers instead of uncovering wrongdoing, not only they, but society at large, suffers.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

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