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.
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Lehrer’s skill at distilling complex neuroscience into fascinating tales made him a popular writer. His work propelled him to the top of the profession quickly, publishing three books and landing a coveted staff position at The New Yorker. On Monday, after being confronted by another journalist writing for the Tablet, an online magazine, Lehrer admitted making up the Dylan quotes for his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” and resigned. His publisher took the unusual step of recalling all copies of the book.Skip to next paragraph
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The recent recession has hit newspapers hard, as has the accelerating shift to online publishing. That has left news organizations exposed, sometimes working without the staff needed to doublecheck accuracy.
Many news organizations are searching for strong freelance voices while working with smaller editorial staffs and trying to produce stories quickly, says Bob Steele, director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.
“If they were running a trauma center the way that we are running newsrooms, we would be all over that,” Mr. Steele says.
“I’m worried because there’s such a premium on speed that it often trumps quality and accuracy,” he says. “There’s such a premium on creativity, whether we call it edge or whether we call it uniqueness or voice that emphasis can undermine authenticity and honesty."
Social media adds another dimension. Journalists are encouraged to discuss events on social media and blogs and that can spread ideas that haven’t been thoroughly fact-checked, Mr. Ward says. He tries to encourage his students to discuss how to apply traditional standards of accuracy to new tools.
Deadline pressure and the Internet make it easy for anyone to take words and ideas from other writers or sources, purposely or accidentally.
“Until we crack the nut of teaching people how to appropriately source material, I think we are going to have a plagiarism problem, and a fabrication problem,” says Kelly McBride, senior media ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida.
Ms. McBride cautions against trying to draw conclusions about all journalists from the Lehrer scandal, but she said his fabrications definitely harm public perception of the media.
Publications and news organizations try to take ethical lapses very seriously. The New York Times published a 7,239-word, front-page story about Mr. Blair’s deception in May 2003, and the paper’s executive editor was forced to step down soon after. The Pulitzer Committee took back Ms. Cooke’s prize.
“This American Life” host Ira Glass dedicated the show’s March 16 episode to confronting Mr. Daisey and forcing him to admit and explain his wrongs.
In a statement released Monday after Lehrer’s announcement, New Yorker editor David Remnick said: “This is a terrifically sad situation. But in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”
It was unclear whether the magazine had concerns about past Lehrer articles. However, in June, it went back to his blog posts for the magazine website and marked them with an asterisk because Lehrer used material in them that he had previously published in other stories.
[Editor's note: The photograph caption originally accompanying this story incorrectly stated the circumstances behind Jayson Blair's departure from The New York Times.]
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