Journalism 101: Keep ego in check
The next Jayson Blair may be sitting in my classroom next fall, challenging me to prove that "journalistic ethics" is not an oxymoron. Each year, I tell students: Don't make things up; don't take credit for someone else's work; don't become bigger than the story; attribute your information; seek multiple sources. Those were the rules I lived by for nearly 20 years as a reporter, editor, and producer in newspapers and cable news.
For my students, those rules sometimes seem as quaint and outdated as looking up a word in the dictionary. Why look up a word when you have an electronic spell checker? Why have journalistic values when no one believes the media anyway? Even The New York Times makes things up. The damage of the Times scandals of Mr. Blair and prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg is the taint on everyone and everything in the news media today. Whom can you trust if you can't trust the Times?
As a journalism educator, I am the first line of defense in making sure people with the right head and the right heart enter the profession I believe is one of the hardest, most under-appreciated, and most essential lines of work on the planet. But attitudes within journalism and within our culture will ensure there will be others who will lie, cheat, cut corners, and do whatever it takes to get ahead.
We Americans have a value system that rewards notoriety. Not long ago, USA Today ran a rogue's gallery of 15-minutes-of-fame celebrities who profited from their disgrace. The reward for journalism school graduates today who follow a strong moral compass is a truckload of college loan debt and a salary that comes close to qualifying them for food stamps. The news industry should be thankful each day that many young journalists are still willing to take the abuse.
But I see students who are tempted by the desire to please and to "just do it." If articles about Blair's motives are to be believed, fear of failure and the pressure to provide stories quickly opened the floodgates of fabrication. Stephen Glass, The New Republic's poster boy of falsehood, gave similar excuses. I've heard them before from some of my students and from some former co-workers.
In my years as a journalist, I've known three colleagues who lost their jobs because of plagiarism. The reasoning is all too familiar. They wanted to please, they didn't have the time to do it right, they were just too tired. They were pushed too hard and told to quit moaning and just do it. The Los Angeles Times photographer with the composite picture from Iraq and Rick Bragg in the "barely there" reporting from Appalachicola, are just recent examples.
As an academic, I often commiserate with other journalism professors concerned about the motive and drive of budding journalists. I'm still haunted by a course evaluation from one student who wrote that I made her hate journalism because I made it clear that the job is the life. Journalism offers lousy pay, lousy hours, no social life, but great ego gratification. Is it any wonder the profession needs to be vigilant about those who want to be journalists for the wrong reasons?
Newspapers have been hit with the reality that some people want to get into journalism to write, but not necessarily to report. Television news has been grappling with a similar problem - attracting some who want to get on television but are not interested in news. As a result, journalism gets a few people who may not have the integrity to do it right.
This is where editors come in and where the current culture of journalism allows the possibility of future scandals. Some news executives seem to play "hot potato" when it comes to taking responsibility for what goes in the newspaper and on air.
And while many editors in the wake of the Blair scandal profess that they'd rather get it right than be first, their resolve often melts when they are given the chance to be No. 1 on a story.
Journalism reflects the values of our culture. Unfortunately, it has been infiltrated by some who prefer hype to honesty. We live in a time when it is better to look good than to be good.
• Janet Kolodzy is a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and at CNN.