Volume 16 Number 4
Facts and Fiddles
01 August 2003

If there were a media Richter scale, the New York Times’ Jayson Blair affair might well have set a new shock record. The Times’ disclosure of how for years Blair, 27, deceived and tricked his readers and editors alike sent shock waves through media across America and doubtless the world. He was accused of widespread plagiarism, falsification of information and of using datelines to create the impression he’d done on-the-scene reporting when he hadn’t. The revelations not only brought Blair’s resignation but also those of the executive and managing editors.

More important, however, may be the episode’s impact—for better or worse—on mass communications generally. One poll in the imbroglio’s wake showed that 62 per cent of the American public distrust media. This diminished trust didn’t begin with the Blair revelations, but clearly they intensified it. ‘We’re losing our readers’ trust and must work to get our credibility back,’ William Middlebrook, associate editor for recruitment at Newsday and a former editor at the New York Times, told the National Press Club in Washington. ‘You need determination to do the right thing wherever you work.’

Not surprisingly, news organizations are examining themselves as perhaps never before. The Blair revelations are only the latest and most searing incidents of journalistic chicanery in recent years. While most journalists strive for accuracy, newspapers have been plagued by staffers who fictionalize or plagiarize. Journalistic consciences have been pricked. The editor of a national media trade journal confessed that as a 19-year-old he fictionalized the names and quotes for the story he wrote for the newspaper where he was interning.

Citing that as an example of what can happen, he urged editors to keep a close watch on young journalists. But some offenders have been veteran journalists.
Tackling ‘Why Journalists Lie: earning back the community’s trust’, a National Press Club/Newseum panel that included Middlebrook and another former New York Times staffer, Geneva Oberholser, seemed to agree that such supervision is woefully missing in many newsrooms. Panelists cited deep budget cuts by media organizations that reduced supervisory manpower. Oberholser, professor in the University of Missouri’s Washington journalism programme and once on the New York Times editorial board, said media were ‘under enormous profit pressure’. She was also aghast at what she said were ‘the autocratic management styles’ in some newsrooms.

More than one panelist not only blamed inadequate training of young journalists but also of their editors. One, Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for National Public Radio, said, ‘Newer journalists don’t get feedback instilling in them the values of the organization.’ But Alice Bonner, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, said, ‘Susceptibility to dishonesty comes much earlier in life.’ However and whenever the susceptibility comes, it has no place in the workplace—especially in media organizations. The panel’s moderator, Hedrik Smith, former deputy national editor and Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, drove home the need to instill in journalists the values held by their organizations. He said, ‘We have a double standard in the way we look at other institutions.... We need to look at ourselves.’

No journalist is immune to mistakes, I know from a long career in daily newspapers. But deliberate error betrays the public trust so eloquently etched in The Journalist’s Creed which says, in part, ‘I believe that the public journal is a public trust. That all connected with it are, to the full measure of responsibility, trustees for the public. That acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.’ It continues ‘I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.... I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best—and best deserves success—fears God and honours man; is stoutly independent; unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power....’

Written by Walter Williams, founder in 1908 at the University of Missouri of the nation’s first school of journalism, The Journalist’s Creed claims a prominent place on the wall of the National Press Club.

It should be engraved on the heart and mind of every journalist.

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the ‘Cincinnati Enquirer’. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.

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