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American Journalism Review
<hr>"We Mean Business"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2004

"We Mean Business"   

In the wake of Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and numerous other instances of fabrication and plagiarism, the nation's newspapers are scrutinizing their operations and stiffening their defenses against ethical lapses.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

Related reading:
   » Plagiarism Detection Tools
   » Playing Defense

With a Sharpie in his left hand, David House flips through the pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, scribbling a number onto each local bylined story. At the end of the week, he's tagged more than 100.

So he goes to find a big roll of tickets, the kind you might get at a fair. For every marked story, House rips off a ticket, then dumps the whole lot into the lid of the box that came with his ombudsman stationery. Stirring them up a bit, he carries the package into the editor's office, announcing, "OK, we're ready for a drawing."

House lifts the lid high over his head as Editor Jim Witt reaches up, fishes around and pulls out--ta-da!--No. 41. But for this chosen one, there's no prize waiting, unless your definition of "prize" involves having David House put your page-one story about Lockheed Martin under a post-publication microscope, scrutinizing every fact, every quote.

Grim, but such is life these days at a paper that's been burned. And the burn victims are mounting.

With dismaying regularity, papers across the country are realizing that they've been had by cheating reporters. Jayson Blair's bamboozling of the New York Times, the most headline-grabbing example, is among the reasons we've since heard of sin after sin after sin. (See "All About the Retrospect," June/July 2003.) That's because the Times' stark mea culpa, which publicly detailed not only Blair's lies but how the paper missed them, set a new standard for burned papers: You confess, you're contrite, and then you clean house.

Lest editors thought Blair a fluke, along came USA Today's revelation that its anointed star correspondent, Jack Kelley, had been playing the paper for years--in ways even more outrageous than Blair's. (See "Who Knows Jack?" April/May.) Then smaller papers chimed in, owning up to plagiarizers here, fabricators there, to the point where this spring it was getting a bit hard to keep track of it all.

Though flamboyant and well-publicized cases give the past year's crimes a particularly egregious feel, it's not the industry's first ugly breakout. In 2001, editors were having fits after, in a span of just a few months, publications including BusinessWeek, the Detroit News, the San Jose Mercury News, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina's Sun News and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania's Press Enterprise offered embarrassed apologies. (See "Ethically Challenged," March 2001.) Three years earlier witnessed the Chiquita, Tailwind and Patricia Smith/Mike Barnicle episodes.

As each new case chipped away at the news industry's already fragile credibility, most newsroom leaders this year heard a call to action. Knowing that wiping out plagiarism and fabrication is pretty much a pipe dream, editors started having at it just the same, tightening ethics policies, having heart-to-hearts with their staffs, monitoring corrections, tracking expense reports and learning about software that detects plagiarism.

In this spring's cacophony of confessions was Fort Worth's. Editors there had fired a reporter in 2001 for plagiarizing once. But after hearing that same reporter had racked up at least 40 plagiarism counts in Georgia at the Macon Telegraph, appalled Star-Telegram editors realized they, too, probably had more than a one-time transgression on their hands. Checks revealed that to be true.

So, with a magic marker, a roll of tickets and a box lid, Star-Telegram Senior Editor/Reader Advocate David House is out to win back his paper's credibility. By randomly choosing a story a week to fact-check after it's published, the paper wants to simultaneously dissuade potential corner-cutters while proving to readers its commitment to honesty.

"We mean business," House says. "There's such a cloud over the profession, we've got to take pretty drastic steps."

"I am so sick of this angst filled handwringing, like this has not been an issue in ours and every other business since the first disciple got paid for his notes about 'Adventures on the Shores of Galilee,'" writes Mike Lloyd, editor of Michigan's Grand Rapids Press, responding to an AJR survey tapping editors for their thoughts about preventing fabrication and plagiarizing. "Journalism is no more nor no less vulnerable to the weaknesses of human beings than any other. We just think we're above the fray and love to self-flagellate.

"Jayson Blair was and is a sick puppy. Jack Kelley had the morals of a dime-store shoplifter. In both cases, their frailties led to huge abuses because they put more energy into deception than they did honest work. There is no cure for that in any business--except jail."

In an April column for Washingtonian magazine's Web site, National Editor Harry Jaffe also scoffed at the notion of journalism in crisis. "At the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington this week, there was much handwringing and self-flagellation about ethics problems in American newsrooms," Jaffe wrote, suggesting that the industry would do well to trade in the angst for some celebration about how well it's "ferreting out fakers."

But upon receiving the same survey that the Michigan editor pooh-poohed, about 25 other top editors bluntly stated how seriously they're taking the problem. And at the same ASNE/Newspaper Association of America convention where Jaffe noticed all the wringing of hands, New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., urged the hundreds of editors and publishers in a session on ethics and standards to work with the assumption that someone in their organization is cheating. "Get ahead of this curve," he warned. "Until your newsroom grapples with it and it feels in its soul it came up with answers, it's probably not going to stick."

Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing, followed that up, adding: "Anyone who says this is not happening in my newspaper is not seeing clearly."

Though journalism certainly has its share of navel-gazers and doomsayers, the people taking the recent spate of ethical transgressions seriously hardly come off as hysterical Chicken Littles.

Peter Bhatia, executive editor at Portland's Oregonian, a paper without any recent plagiarism or fabrication incidents, says that all newsrooms suffer side effects from the recent cases. "This is a real crisis. The public sees it," he says. "We're kidding ourselves if we don't think it's had an impact on our credibility."

Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Insitute, believes the problems are rampant in the industry. In high school and in college, she says, students are plagiarizing and cheating as a matter of course. Why would everything change once these students hit the real world?

McBride recently spoke to a convention of Florida high school journalists. Asking their teachers to leave the room, she asked the kids if they drop chunks of copy from published sources into their reports. Yeah, they told her--and, yeah, they know that's bad. "They know it's wrong, but they equate it to speeding rather than drunk driving," McBride says.

"The problem is that when they do it for a school paper, once they've established a habit, it's hard not to do it in their publication," she says.

Coke Ellington, a former reporter who now teaches journalism at Alabama State University, has caught his less- erudite students turning in work that includes words like "doyenne" and "maven." He's heard about, a site filled with thousands of papers on hundreds of topics. And he's confronted plagiarizers who immediately ask for a do-over. "They don't get it," Ellington says. "When someone is caught robbing a bank, they don't just give the money back and walk away.

"I hope I can keep some people out of the field who don't belong in it," he says. "I hate to think I'd have to check reporters the way I check my Intro to Mass Communications students."

"I t sounds funny, but the wall is my rock," went the first quote in the story David Zeeck, editor of Tacoma, Washington's News Tribune, was reading. Funny indeed is how it sounded to Zeeck.

The November 2002 story by reporter Bart Ripp was a front-page feature about a historical cobblestone wall in town. The day before, when Zeeck saw the piece slated for A1, he asked that the archives-based stroll down memory lane be freshened with quotes from real people who have something modern and relevant to say about the wall.

"He went out and got them in a nanosecond," Zeeck says. "It was just too easy." So reading the story in the paper, getting to the quote by a "Lynn Kim of Lakewood," Zeeck got "the little flag in your gut that goes off as an editor."

Zeeck marched into the office, pulled another editor aside and told her he thought the quote was bogus. Searches through phonebooks and directories revealed no Lynn Kim; another quoted appreciator of the wall, a Brian Wellisch, wasn't listed either.

But with only suspicion rather than proof, Zeeck decided that he'd just keep an eye on Ripp, a 32-year reporting veteran who'd been at the News Tribune for 15 years. Flash forward a year-and-a-half to this spring. Ripp's editor on the features desk, Linda Dahlstrom, is reading his Q&A column on area dining. Though Ripp had been told to include the name and hometown of questioners, and call them for permission to use their names, these questioners were anonymous. When Dahlstrom demanded the names, Ripp said he'd add them--that is if a computer crash hadn't erased the file where he kept them.

Ripp soon provided the names, mentioning nothing more about the computer issue. But, suspicious, Dahlstrom asked him if he'd gotten permission to use them--Ripp responded with an all-too-quick yeah, yeah, yeah. At that point, her editor alarms blaring, Dahlstrom grabbed some phonebooks and started hunting down Ripp's names. No matches.

In the year-and-a-half since Zeeck looked for Lynn Kim in Tacoma area directories, the paper had invested in a database called Accurint, a tool for finding people and information about them. According to Accurint, only one of the six people in Ripp's column appeared to exist. Meanwhile, every adult quoted in nine stories by other reporters appeared in the database.

Dahlstrom called the one woman in Ripp's column Accurint turned up. As the woman readily confirmed sending the letter, Dahlstrom apologized for having to bother her about it twice. The woman said this was the first call about it she'd gotten. When Dahlstrom asked Bart about the discrepancy, he replied: "I'm sorry I lied to you."

When it all came to a head in Zeeck's office, Ripp insisted he never made up a thing and quit on the spot. He claimed he had e-mails from those people, though he couldn't produce them.

After Ripp left, the paper checked his sources from the last 18 months of stories, everything back to the feature about Lynn Kim and the wall. Another 20 people in them are probably made up, Zeeck says.

"It's sad because Bart had real talent, he was kind of a star in town," Zeeck says. "It's so frustrating, so maddening."

Bart Ripp seems cut from the mold of USA Today's Jack Kelley who, even when filing from the world's most dramatic locales, felt compelled to add blood to already graphic war scenes and make up people in despair when, perhaps, real people in despair didn't emote to his liking. Zeeck says that Ripp would go out to cover an event, quote plenty of real people, then fill out the story with fakes.

In Ripp's case, the official sources would be legitimate--the booth-owners at an ethnic festival, the purveyors of a butcher shop. But the strolling festivalgoers or the butcher shop customers that Ripp supposedly caught up to in the parking lot were apparently figments of his imagination. "These are the easiest interviews in the world. Why would you make these things up?" Zeeck asks. "Jack Kelley is making things up in Israel and Bosnia. There real life is good enough. Great storytelling is there for the asking--why embellish? I can't comprehend what this is about. It's very frustrating."

Frustrating and near-impossible to catch until you suspect something. After Jayson Blair was defrocked last year, the News Tribune started sending questionnaires each week to six or nine randomly chosen sources. Only two or three of several hundred have come back revealing any factual problems in stories. And only sources with easy-to-find addresses would get mailed one--so chances are, if oblivious to Bart Ripp's transgressions, the paper tried to send one to Lynn Kim, she would simply be passed over in favor of some of the story's more accessible, official sources. And since he probably quoted the official guys accurately, a questionnaire about a Ripp story would probably leave him looking like a great, thorough reporter.

When Khalil Abdullah came to work for Lois Norder in her suburban bureau of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in February 2000, she thought she'd hired a young, enterprising reporter with a bright future. He'd interned at the Dallas Morning News, he'd worked at Charleston, South Carolina's Post and Courier, and he seemed to possess real enthusiasm for writing.

Which is why, even though his primary responsibility was covering cities and school districts, she chose him to team up with the paper's more experienced immigration reporter on a project about the "lost boys" of Sudan who had settled in Texas. Abdullah seemed to throw himself into the project, spending a lot of time with the young men as they adjusted to their new lives. But as the deadline approached for a first draft, Abdullah's partner on the story came to Norder in tears. She said she thought Abdullah had stolen parts of his section from two other papers. Having read the other pieces, she recognized the writing.

Unquestionably, the passages were verbatim lifts. When Norder asked Abdullah about it, he claimed he hadn't plagiarized. Rather, he was on deadline, in a hurry, so he used other papers' copy to hold space for reporting he wanted to do later himself. "He said he would never have let it get into the paper that way," Norder says. But then an assistant at the paper revealed that she had once taken a message for a former editor, a complaint from a Dallas Morning News reporter that Abdullah was plagiarizing her. "We fired him," Norder says.

And that was that until Norder started getting reference calls--by 2002 Abdullah wanted back in newspapers.

When Abdullah first sent his résumé to the Macon Telegraph, Executive Editor Sherrie Marshall says the plagiarism in his past turned her and other editors off. But when the reporter reapplied months later, seeming persistent, driven and reformed, Marshall gave in. She talked to colleagues and to Norder in Fort Worth--no one ruled out the idea of a second chance.

It seemed to Marshall as if Abdullah's transgression was a one-time, stupid, young reporter's mistake. He admitted it and was willing to work at a smaller paper to get back in the game. "He [wanted] to earn his way back," she says.

That was September 2002. By this spring, Marshall knew better.

In March an editor from the San Diego Union-Tribune called her to say that an article Abdullah had written a few months back about the enrollment decline for high school shop classes was "remarkably similar" to a piece reporter Alex Lyda wrote for the California paper in July 2003.

All of the national context, the meat, for Abdullah's story, which ran on the front page, came from San Diego's A1 story. The lead in San Diego, "When cars had no computers and power steering was a luxury, high schools had a shop class where students with gritty nails lingered over engines and mingled with friends content to turn wrenches, not pages," pops up verbatim as Abdullah's nut graph.

Seeing the pieces side by side, there was really no question for Marshall--Abdullah had stolen the words. She fired him immediately, but first asked him for an explanation. "We got more or less the silent treatment," she says, though Abdullah told a Telegraph reporter writing the paper's story about his firing, "I certainly would want to say that I knew better."

Abdullah left the Telegraph on a Friday. Editors started exhuming his other stories that Saturday. They found that more than 40 of the approximately 200 stories Abdullah wrote for the paper included cribbed material. Abdullah plagiarized consistently for more than a year, the Telegraph says, taking passages from, to name a few, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, the Oregonian and, ironically, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

These days, neither Norder nor Marshall is too keen on second chances for supposedly rehabilitated journalism convicts. "I hate to think one strike and you're out," Norder says wryly. "Though I've since changed my mind on that."

While Fort Worth is counting on the post-publication fact-checking to get out from under Abdullah's shadow, in Macon, where the sting is fresher, they're in debate mode, talking and trying to get a handle on what, if anything, might stop their next problem. They're feeling vulnerable.

Obviously, for starters, there's the hiring issue. More careful checks on candidates and a zero tolerance for plagiarism are on the table. "As an editor who's now faced this situation, I can't imagine I would ever take the chance again," Marshall says. A committee the Telegraph convened to think about how to protect the paper from unethical journalists has recommended having more seminars and discussions about accuracy and ethics and random post-publication fact-checking like at Forth Worth. The paper is also considering buying plagiarism detection software and possibly using it to check the clips of job candidates.

Norder incredulously learned that a recent Star-Telegram job candidate applied with plagiarized clips. "This is much more pervasive than I ever imagined," she marvels. "To apply for work with plagiarized material?"

Just the existence of her paper's fact-checking program will deter reporters tempted to cheat, Norder guesses. "You can gamble on it," she says. "But your number might come up some time."

These wayward journalists leave trails, says Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With Jayson Blair, there were the expense reports that didn't match his whereabouts. With Jack Kelley, absurd quotes, outlandish scenarios and claims to have witnessed more death gasps than some emergency room nurses. Khalil Abdullah had a habit of plagiarizing graphs with national perspective to elevate his locally based stories. With Bart Ripp it was quoting average Joes oddly absent from powerful databases. "You could go back and find clues," Meyer says. "If you have a scam, an editor could at least find a way to figure out how to prevent the scam."

If anything can stop plagiarizers or fabricators, common sense seems to dictate, it's aggressive questioning by shrewd, skeptical editors and creating a newsroom environment where concerns raised by readers and staff are dignified with responses. Those two concepts, editors say, form the foundation for a protected organization--and while extras like fact-checking or plagiarism software can supplement them, they can't substitute.

"There's no pill we can take," says the Oregonian's Bhatia. "Every newsroom has to look deeply at itself and say, ?These are our points of vulnerability.'"

Turning up the heat on story editing is an amorphous proposition--who's to say when one's doing enough? But the idea, editors say, is to just consciously try harder. USA Today editors who read Jack Kelley's filings say at the time nothing struck them as odd, though looking back on individual stories, some of them have said they wonder why they didn't ask more questions.

"Editors, assignment editors, copy editors, top editors need to be especially questioning," Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron says. "With too many assignment editors, with too many copy editors, things are getting through that shouldn't be getting through." If something looks too good, he says, it may well be, and editors shouldn't give a pass to blockbuster quotes and anecdotes--particularly if they involve anonymous sources.

As journalists digested the news of Jayson Blair last year, David Zeeck reminded his editors how critical it is to trust their instincts--if something seems wrong, by all means, check it out. "He told us to pay attention to the little feelings in the pit of your stomach," says Dahlstrom, who used that very tactic to help stop Ripp.

To set the stage for solid editing, newsrooms might have to rethink the traditional editor-to-reporter ratio. Often, top editors say, there are so many reporters per supervisor that an editor just doesn't have enough time in the day to give copy the attention it deserves, let alone know exactly what each reporter is up to.

"The editing process takes more time than we've traditionally given it," UNC's Meyer says. And Denver Post Editor Greg Moore told his peers at the NAA/ASNE convention that the editor/reporter ratio is a "potential for calamities." "Any assigning editor who has to handle eight reporters, that's too many," Moore said.

Though most of the Blair-Kelley disaster clean-up efforts focus on assignment-editor questioning, at the Baltimore Sun, the copy desk chief knows that his team, which already catches a lot of mistakes, can catch cheaters. Last fall John E. McIntyre, the Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, revamped the desk's guidelines to specifically deal with plagiarism and fabrication.

Every copy editor now knows of the "danger signs" of plagiarized copy--abrupt shifts in vocabulary or syntax, aspects to a story that don't seem like the writer's usual work, single-sourced stories.

One Sun copy editor recently found plagiarism in a staff-written story, McIntyre says. When checking the spelling of a place name online, the copy editor noticed a sentence on a Web site identical to what the Sun reporter had written. It turned out the story included six passages taken verbatim from two different Web sites. The story was spiked.

McIntyre says: "We want copy editors to be aware that this might crop up in virtually anything they handle."

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