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Resignation of New Yorker writer revives questions about media ethics

The resignation of New Yorker magazine staff writer Jonah Lehrer again raises concerns about the credibility of journalists. Smaller newsroom budgets and demand for quick stories may be partly to blame, say media analysts.   

By Kevin LoriaContributor / August 2, 2012

Jayson Blair, the reporter who resigned from The New York Times after being found to have fabricated stories, poses for a portrait in New York City in this file photograph. Jonah Lehrer resigned his staff writing position from The New Yorker magazine this week after admitting to fabricating quotations in a book.

Mayita Mendez/AP Photo/Newsday

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Declining circulation, shrinking news holes, newsroom layoffs: It’s not the best of times for the journalism profession. Now add to those woes yet another ethics scandal involving fabricated quotations undermining the credibility of the news industry.

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The newest outrage to hit the Fourth Estate comes from an acclaimed reporter and a staff writer at one of the most august publications in the US: The New Yorker magazine. The writer, Jonah Lehrer, admitted that he had made up quotations attributed to Bob Dylan in a book and though the fabrications did not appear in the magazine, the New Yorker's editor still accepted Mr. Lehrer’s resignation Monday, calling the situation “terrifically sad.”

With the memory of other notable plagiarists and fabulists at US newspapers and even radio still fresh, the scandal surrounding Lehrer does nothing to enhance the credibility of news media and prompts the question: What’s going on and why?

In 2011, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reported that 66 percent of Americans believe news stories are often inaccurate. Media analysts say inaccurate reporting, and the temptation to make up material, may stem from smaller news staffs, budget cuts, new story forms, competitive newsrooms, and the desire to produce stories quickly for various platforms. Still, they caution that there is no quantitative measure that could show whether incidences of plagiarism or fabrication have increased.

“The problem is as old as journalism,” says Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Media Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. "It's a systemic issue, it's a case of extreme pressure being put on people. Newsrooms are hot competitive environments, and whether that's on Wall Street or at The New Yorker, people may take chances to get noticed."

Two years ago, Daily Beast chief investigative reporter Gerald Posner resigned after it was revealed that he’d plagiarized sentences from other writers’ stories – he says he did so inadvertently, by rewriting things he’d read online. The New York Times was stunned in 2003 when it discovered reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarized stories.

The problem is not limited to print. Earlier this year, Mike Daisey was forced to admit he had exaggerated storytelling about Chinese factories making iPods and Apple hardware in a story broadcast on the public radio program “This American Life.” 

The most notorious case might be Janet Cooke, whose Pulitzer-Prize winning 1980 Washington Post story featured a person who did not exist. 

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