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.   

Mayita Mendez/AP Photo/Newsday
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.

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.

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. 

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.

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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