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American Journalism Review
Sources of Despair  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FULL COURT PRESS    
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Sources of Despair   

A flurry of phantom sources, stolen material and Jayson Blair sightings

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The hits just keep on coming.

The Chicago Tribune fires a freelance writer, formerly a longtime foreign correspondent for the paper, for making up the name of a source.

The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, fires a reporter after it finds that 20 of his stories seem to have been copied from other newspapers.

A reporter for the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, resigns when confronted with news that the paper had been unable to confirm the existence of people he had quoted.

The Iowa State Daily fires a staffer for lifting material from Minneapolis' Star Tribune.

Then USA Today's devastating report cataloguing a harrowing array of journalistic misdeeds by its erstwhile star foreign correspondent Jack Kelley (see "Who Knows Jack?") The paper's investigation found strong evidence that Kelley "fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work."

All this as disgraced and unrepentant former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair shamelessly flogs his book, with the mind-boggling, not to say ridiculous, complicity of the nation's news organizations.

And it's not like we haven't been here before. Just three years ago Lori Robertson, in an AJR cover story, explored a previous explosion of fabrication and plagiarism. (See "Ethically Challenged," March 2001.)

In the aftermath of Blair, many news organizations took a hard look at their policies and ethics codes to make sure they were doing all they could to prevent transgressions.

The New York Times went so far as to name an ombudsman, a position the paper had long resisted, and appoint a high-powered committee to examine its operations. Recently both the Times and the Washington Post spelled out their policies regarding the use of anonymous sources.

Last summer, when I was at the Austin American-Statesman, an editor sounded me out about my views on how to maintain integrity in bylines and datelines and handling stories cobbled together from various sources. Turns out they had a task force scrutinizing the way the paper did its business.

Now policies and codes are a good thing, and I commend efforts to nail them down and upgrade them. But they only mean something if they're put into practice. Too often they're shoved in a drawer somewhere and ignored.

The Washington Post has long had edicts sharply restricting when anonymous sources can be used. But, judging by how many stories it runs that are based on the nameless, the paper--up till now, at least--hasn't been overly aggressive about enforcing them.

There are a number of reasons for that, but an important one also brings to mind another problem with codes--what happens when they bump up against messy reality?

Journalists around the country have long decried the way their colleagues inside the Beltway rely on unnamed sources. It's easy to do so if you don't understand the extent to which Washington runs on secrecy. There are platoons of officials and bureaucrats who talk off the record or on background or (my very favorite) on deep background.

Nobody likes namelessness. But how do you break the cycle? If you stop covering those background briefings, steel yourself for reading stories you don't have--some of them quite worthwhile--in the competition.

But in our landscape of made-up sources or somebody else's sources, no-name sources are the least of our woes. Ethics codes are fine, but you hardly need one to know that making stuff up or stealing it is wrong.

So what's the answer? The thing is, no one seems to know. You would think the fact that plagiarists and fabricators are constantly getting caught would be a pretty powerful deterrent. But the temptation of all that material on the Internet seems difficult for some to ignore.

I do know one thing that won't help: hiring Mike Barnicle to write a column, as the Boston Herald just did. Barnicle, you'll recall, left the Boston Globe after it came to light that he had written a column containing jokes that closely resembled material in a book by comedian George Carlin, and after sources for another column couldn't be found. This was in the wake of the Chiquita-Tailwind-Patricia Smith ethical meltdown of 1998. (See AJR's September 1998 issue.)

Andrew Costello, who was then the Herald's editor, told the Washington Post at the time that he didn't think Barnicle could meet his paper's standards.

Now Costello is gone, and Barnicle is back in Boston.


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