Back to basics on journalism ethics


THE MEDIA's latest crisis of confidence -- making up stories and fudging the facts -- is not a new phenomenon, nor is it likely to end with the current round of revelations, no matter how "shocked" everyone is that such occurs. Given the state of the profession, and society's concurrence, it is only a matter of time before we witness more of the same.

Let the reader decide which of the two journalists committed the worst sins, Stephen Glass of the New Republic or Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe. Both engaged in monumental frauds. He not only made up stories that denigrated innocent people, but he also devised elaborate schemes and computerized methods to cover-up the transgressions to fool his editors and fact checkers. She, the poet and better writer, spun heart-wrenching tales of the human condition and suffering.

World-class liars

In both cases, the fabrications made the writers popular inside and outside their publications, thereby enhancing their careers. Mr. Glass was a much-sought-after writer by such magazines as Vanity Fair, Esquire and George; she had attracted a big following of almost cult-like adoration, reading her poetry in this country and abroad.

That the pair could engage in deception so deftly for so long is an example of flaws in the newsroom. Of course, journalists were stunned to hear of it. And a few editors will institute reforms again, such as stressing and reiterating ethics, paying more attention to young writers and perusing resumes more closely. The same were pledged in 1981 after Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on a supposed 8-year-old heroin addict who did not exist outside her mind and burning desire to succeed. Embarrassed, the Post returned the prize.

It was later revealed that Cooke had lied on her resume about her academic background and newspaper experience and that questions about her work had been repeatedly raised by some Post editors and reporters but were dismissed as professional jealousy.

And that is the crux of the problem. The traditional path to success in the newsroom is being ignored more and more for a variety of reasons. They include a mad rush to personal riches and popularity by journalists; hiring of younger and inexperienced reporters (at lower salaries, naturally) not yet endowed with the spirit of service and the edge to resist the temptation to cut corners; checkbook and celebrity journalism; Matt Drudge syndrome; dumbing down of news pages with fluff and puff and de-emphasis of substantive news; the influence of Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, even Oprah Winfrey, as well as the prominence of pseudo-news shows.

I'm not accusing the majority of my colleagues of wrongdoing. I am saying that the profession -- indeed, society -- has changed to where it is easier to accept a lot of stuff we previously fought off and deemed tasteless and unworthy of repeating.

Besides Ms. Cooke, the ethics of some of our best have been questioned. Jimmy Breslin did not escape. All those timely and appropriately placed anecdotes and quotable quotes in the New York columnist's articles were highly suspect. Only he could find such people and circumstances at the right place and the right time. In my days as an editor, there were a few writers whose copy was sometimes under suspicion. I remember one who covered an assault and quoted the female victim telling her assailant, "Unhand me, you cad." Yes, somebody actually tried to get away with that one.

A bogus report

One of my role models when I was a young reporter back in Ohio was an assistant city editor. One day, he could not find a reporter free to write a story ordered by the managing editor, a follow-up article on the Central Intelligence Agency's devising a martini listening device -- olive transmitter, toothpick antenna. So the assistant city editor made up a story and the editor, unaware of the fraud, put it on page one.

In today's media circus, the press is even more vulnerable to the pranks and devilishness of young and old. If we can be fooled by a 7-year-old, then editors certainly can be had by Patricia Smith and Stephen Glass. The 7-year-old from Washington, described as bright and precocious, gained her moment of glory with a tale that she took over the wheel of the car -- after her father fell unconscious -- and drove him to a hospital emergency room. The report of that alleged feat resulted in her being feted in City Hall ceremonies and featured in stories in the Washington Post, People magazine and various television shows. She was called and congratulated by President Clinton and NBA star Michael Jordan, and was set to appear on "Oprah."

The problem was her story was not true. She is a thoroughly modern media kid with the know-how and pluck to carry out the big lie. Probably learned it from television. But the episode exposed the soft underbelly of the press and society and our insatiable appetite for attention. Patricia Smith and Stephen Glass peeled back the layers of vulnerability further. Journalists have always been snookered, particularly by high-priced handlers, but nowadays, it seems that anyone with a weird tale can have a media moment. We did not arrive at this point in a vacuum. I already mentioned some of the contributing factors. In the newsroom, relationships are based on trust between all participants. Editors must have confidence that the stories reporters write are true, the facts were gathered honestly and the information is accurate. Editors must take care that articles are balanced and fair.

When that relationship is breached, the system breaks down. It is supposed to work like this: In smaller newsrooms that train the majority of journalists, wily old veterans who played by the rules pass along ethics and values to the young, who move up and out and on to bigger newsrooms. The system is designed to keep the heaviest pressure off young inexperienced but naturally ambitious journalists. Also, by demanding accuracy we maintain the public's trust.

Current polls contain a sobering reality for journalists: Most Americans question our veracity anyway.

Funny thing about bending the rules, faking it and making it up: Life is so full of drama that there's no need to go the phony route.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer, former chairman of the journalism department at the University of Alabama and a former reporter and editor at the New York Times.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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