Media blemishes may lead to reform

Important to come clean with public


March 20, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

News executives at once applauded and winced yesterday after seeing USA Today's detailed account of the dishonest reporting - including repeated instances of plagiarism and fabrication - by former foreign correspondent Jack Kelley.

They applauded, they said, because such honesty is desperately needed to win back the trust of the public. But the scandal undoubtedly will reinforce the mistrust many Americans already feel toward the media, they added.

"It's definitely one more troubling scene in a long-running movie," said Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian. "It definitely allows people to paint journalists with a broad brush, taken with perceived biases in news reports and common, everyday inaccuracies."

USA Today announced yesterday that during his 21-year tenure, Kelley had repeatedly fabricated anecdotes, plagiarized passages and deceived editors in attempts to justify his reporting. The disclosures follow a series of recent embarrassing episodes that have called into question the integrity of the press. Last year, in perhaps the most notorious case, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was found to have written at least three dozen articles compromised by plagiarism, inventions or fundamental inaccuracies. The scandal eventually cost the paper's two top editors their jobs.

"What we're seeing here with Jayson Blair and with Kelley are individual failures that were not picked up by newsroom managers," said Kevin Klose, president and CEO of National Public Radio. "It is the nightmare that every responsible editor or manager lives with. It's very important for USA Today to make the record as clear as it can, as far as it can."

As USA Today reported last spring, public confidence in the media has slipped markedly in recent years. Its own polls showed the number of Americans who believe news outlets present facts accurately has dropped sharply, from 54 percent in mid-1989 to 36 percent last May.

Journalism is based on relationships of trust, Klose said, between reporter and editor as well as reader and publication. At times, those relationships have been abused.

Ties between a former foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune were severed earlier this year when he was found to have invented the name of a person whom he quoted in a free-lance article. A reporter in Tacoma, Wash., resigned after editors could not locate many of the people quoted in his articles. A reporter in Macon, Ga., was fired after he was discovered to have plagiarized an article - the same offense for which he was previously forced to leave the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In 2002, the Associated Press fired a Washington correspondent after identifying many stories for which it suspected he invented sources.

Bill Kovach, who is serving on the panel that is reviewing Kelley's work for USA Today, said yesterday that newspapers have become far more transparent about their operations than they were in the past. In Blair's case, the Times conducted its own inquiry and published a full accounting of its findings of the flaws in Blair's articles.

"This is one of the few professions that's done this openly and aggressively," said Kovach, a former editor who is chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "I don't think you see other institutions exposing wrong-doing in its own ranks."

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's journalism school, recently proposed that major newspapers assign "a guerrilla team of fact checkers" to check selected stories at random before publication.

"It would be insuperably expensive and logistically impossible for a daily paper to check every story before publication, the way magazines do," Lemann wrote in the March 15 edition of The New Yorker. "But most of the journalism scandals involve a certain type of story, a vivid feature from an exotic location. If reporters knew that every once in a while somebody would pluck a story of this kind out of the in-type list and talk to all the people quoted ... it would have a powerful effect."

Rowe suggests that public trust can best be restored community by community. "Credibility is built over time, one newspaper, one decision, one news story at a time," she said. "Editors have the responsibility - it's in their job description - to be the most skeptical reader there is. When that slips, there is real danger that can result."

To read more about USA Today's report, see Page 1A.

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