Knocking Down the Stonewall  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2005

Knocking Down the Stonewall   

The ill-fated “60 Minutes” story on President Bush’s National Guard service is the latest reminder that the defensive crouch doesn’t cut it as a response to a serious ethical challenge. What should news organizations do when a story comes under fire?

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     


The question that ignites an ethics crisis can come from anywhere.

For the Seattle Times in late July, it came in an e-mail from a reader who had discovered two stories about Asian airports that shared remarkable similarities: Seven paragraphs from a story in the Times' January 19, 1997, edition were identical to material that had appeared in a special issue of the Journal of Commerce in March 1996.

The Times piece, written by Associate Editor and business columnist Stephen H. Dunphy, failed to credit the Journal of Commerce.

"Your heart just sinks," says Times Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher. "The seriousness of the charge is such that your inclination is not to believe it, yet your brain is telling you to stop and consider it carefully."

The reader's e-mail, because it followed a 2000 confession by Dunphy that he had mistakenly lifted passages from a book by author Barry Lopez, sparked a probe by the daily's editors and an investigative reporter. Their search revealed more than a dozen cases of plagiarism in the journalist's work during the previous seven years, prompting Dunphy, a 37-year veteran of the paper, to resign.

The incident also led to public and private soul-searching at the daily. The Blethen family-owned Times devoted more than 3,000 words to detailing the columnist's transgressions and explaining how it hoped to regain the faith of its readers.

"Readers must be able to trust that our work is our own," Fancher wrote in a September 12 column. "We stand for nothing if not for accuracy, credibility and honesty, the bedrock of journalism."

The paper also reevaluated its ethics guidelines and thought anew about how to handle sourcing and attribution. "This ended up being less about Steve than about us and what we learn and how we go forward," Fancher says.

The Seattle Times' response to the discovery of an ethical lapse was praised by some for its transparency and criticized by others for its harshness. Any newspaper or television station or network that finds itself under fire, from NBC during the "Dateline" exploding fuel-tank fiasco in 1992 to the New York Times during the Jayson Blair scandal (see "All About the Retrospect," June 2003), is bound to be criticized for its reaction to wrongdoing, no matter how its leaders handle it.

But at the close of a year that brought to light some spectacular ethical problems, including the Jack Kelley plagiarism and fabrication case at USA Today (see "Who Knows Jack?" April/May) and the "60 Minutes" National Guard documents debacle, and in a climate in which many Americans question the credibility of the news they watch, read and surf, how should journalists respond when their reporting is called into question?

Should editors, producers and reporters answer every person out there who challenges their work? And just what should they do when they realize they have an ethical lapse, or even an ethics crisis, on their hands?

When can a news organization simply say, "We stand by our story"?

"All of us have been challenged at times when we had absolutely full faith in our story," says John Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA Today. "It's perfectly legitimate to say, if you are confident you are right, 'I stand by the story.' I have done that if I thought the challenge was not being made in good faith."

"When we are confident the information we publish is true and factual," he says, journalists must "trust the reader to place our credibility against the credibility of a challenger."

That's how the Los Angeles Times responded last year to criticism of its stories, in the week leading up to California's recall election, asserting that Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped and sexually harassed women (see "The Women," December 2003/January 2004).

The action film star's campaign and an army of radio and talk show hosts came down hard on the daily. And about 10,000 readers were even tougher: They voiced their opinion of the coverage by canceling their subscriptions.

But most of these critics lambasted the timing of the stories, accused the paper of liberal bias, or both. Few challenged the information the Times reported. The paper, which had carefully vetted its sources, did not back down.

"At the risk of offending more readers," Times Editor John S. Carroll wrote in an opinion piece that followed the uproar, "I'll say that if you're put off by investigative reporting, this probably won't be the right newspaper for you in the years to come."

The Schwarzenegger story is perhaps the classic case of reporting that merits a refusal to retreat. "But I don't think you can ever say in a knee-jerk fashion, 'We stand by our story,' " says Seigenthaler, who, with Bill Kovach and Bill Hilliard, undertook a two-and-a-half-month review of Jack Kelley's work at USA Today. "If a challenge is specific, it gives you the opportunity to immediately turn the specifics inside and out and come to a conclusion about it."

But too often news organizations confronted with a challenge have gone into a defensive crouch. "The fact is, the standard default response is, 'We stand by our story,' " says Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and former editor of the Atlanta

Journal-Constitution. "But that doesn't cut it with the public." In the September "60 Minutes" case, CBS "resisted the whole idea that they needed to look into it for quite awhile," he says.

"Basically they stonewalled," says James M. Naughton, retired president of the Poynter Institute. "But it's not unusual for them to stand behind it. I'm not surprised if Dan Rather's first reaction was to support the staff he trusted."

Still, he says, "it was a little unfair and a great deal unfortunate that Rather and CBS were so dogmatic about it."

Mike Jacobs, publisher and editor of North Dakota's Grand Forks Herald, believes waiting too long to answer a challenge erodes the public's trust.

"I'd have an honest conversation with the person responsible for putting the material in the newspaper," Jacobs says. "You should test, one, their comfort level with the material, and, two, any bias they have. In other words, do they have some reason to wish that the story were true?"

Following that, "you should let your public know you've acted immediately to look into it," he says.

When questions arise, says Carolina Garcia, editor of California's Monterey County Herald, you should ask yourself: "What steps did I take to make sure that the documents meet our standards? Do a self-examination."

Karen Hunter, reader representative at the Hartford Courant, says she doesn't understand why some journalists resist having their work corrected. "I trust reporters. They try to do their jobs honestly," she says. "If they slip up it's usually by accident."

It's normal to feel defensive when your work is criticized, but you can't let it stop you from taking questions about your reporting seriously, says Frank Barrows, managing editor of the Charlotte Observer. "Defensiveness is a natural human reaction," he says. "The reaction we'd hope to have is this: Listen hard to your critics, and then decide whether you think they're right."

Challenges to a news organization's reporting can--and do--come from all directions: a viewer or reader noting an error, another news organization saying you got a story wrong, a blogger charging bias, a source challenging your account, staff members doubting a colleague's story. Do journalists have a responsibility to answer them all?

"Yes," is the resounding answer in instances where the question comes from a reader or viewer. "I treat all questions as if they are valid," Hunter says.

But some journalists doubt whether each complaint should get equal consideration. They say criticism from blogs, some of which were the first to question the documents obtained by "60 Minutes" for its story about President Bush's military service, doesn't automatically merit a response.

"Bloggers don't yet have a historical record of being fair and thorough," says Naughton, who was a New York Times Washington correspondent from 1969 to 1977 and was a longtime senior editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Your reaction to a blogger may be less developed" than to criticism from a traditional news outlet or from a reader e-mail or call.

Others note that bloggers don't meet journalism's professional standards. "By responding to bloggers, we are giving them credibility that they don't deserve," says Bob Furnad, a former executive vice president at CNN who now teaches at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. "I wouldn't respond to them until they are held to the same standard that we are, beyond giving their own opinion."

But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says bloggers are in fact held to high standards--by their readers. "The more popular blogs would have to be factually correct" or the bloggers' own readers would notice and complain, says Rosen, who writes the blog "Pressthink." He believes journalists ignore the bloggers at their peril.

"If you care whether your reporting is right or wrong, what you should care about is the quality of the question, not where it comes from," Rosen says. "A journalist knows there's always someone who knows more about your subject than you do. So it's not surprising that a blogger may be out there who has information that you need."

No matter who is doing the questioning, it's time to examine your conscience, Grand Forks' Jacobs says. "Are you really comfortable staking your reputation on this story?" he asks. If not, it's time to figure out how you'll lead during the storm to come.

When a news outlet realizes that it may have an ethical lapse on its hands, says Susan Tifft, professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, decision makers should "think about putting readers or viewers first and work backward from that."

"There has to be some sense of being responsive in a real way, and not just in a PR way," she says. "It may be painful, but it ends up bolstering your reputation in the long run."

When a mistake is discovered, Kovach advises news organizations to take a lesson from teaching hospitals. "Any time there is a serious problem that occurs, the hospital convenes the doctors, nurses and hospital staff for a question-and-answer session," he says. "The doctor and others involved in the case describe every step that was taken: 'I diagnosed this, I did this.' The others in the room can ask questions."

The newsroom should convene a similar meeting, he says. "They should talk until they figure out what mistake was made and how it was made."

Often, a first look at the problem will raise more questions than it answers. At that point, a deeper probe is needed. "Use the techniques of good journalism to see what happened," Naughton says. "Put your best investigative reporters on it."

It's also a good time to turn to the ombudsman, if the news organization is one of the few that has one. When a story is questioned, "I take an independent look into the facts," says Hunter at the Courant. "I contact the people in the story. I do my own investigation. I have to find the documents on which the reporting was based."

Tifft calls Bill Green's investigation of the Janet Cooke fabrication scandal at the Washington Post in 1981 a model for how to conduct an internal probe. "They had an ombudsman and gave him free rein to go down and dig down in the weeds to find out what happened," says Tifft.

If a news outlet opts for an internal investigation, it's crucial that the person who conducts it is outside the story's chain of command, says Tom Johnson, former chairman of CNN News Group. "The media is a very thin-skinned profession," he wrote in an e-mail. "We are far better at reporting the mistakes of others than we are [at] reporting our own mistakes. For that reason, I believe a head of standards and practices should exist in every major news organization."

Johnson, also the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, says that person should report directly to the news organization's chief news executive. The standards chief "should be a very senior executive, one who is independent, highly respected, and highly experienced."

Still, with an internal probe, says Furnad, "there's an unsaid pressure that they're going to be easy on you."

When the error is grand and the stakes are high, an internal investigation may not be enough. "You will know it when you experience it," Johnson says. "I describe this as 'the big one'--a possible mistake of such major magnitude that restoration of public trust requires an external, independent investigation."

Johnson speaks from experience. In 1998, he brought in well-known First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to probe CNN's much-criticized story that the United States had used poison gas during the Vietnam War (see "An Ill Tailwind," September 1998). Abrams concluded the story was "unsupportable," and CNN retracted it.

An outside investigation has more credibility because news organizations are likely to be more defensive about their work and their staff, Naughton says. "But if it's only a PR move, it's a mistake," he cautions. "Because now outsiders are going to be taking a close look at your process, and who knows what they'll find?"

If you do opt for an outside investigation, he says, choose panelists with a reputation for fairness and accuracy. "A political figure may be controversial," Naughton says, noting that former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh is helping investigate the "60 Minutes" National Guard story. Instead, he says, "learned, high-minded journalists should be named. The person doesn't need to be a household name. The issue is: Who can get to the bottom of this?"

Kovach says that while external probes like his at USA Today tend to be launched "in extremis," news organizations would be smart to use them more often. "It's hard to see things you're used to," he says. "It's always easier for outsiders to come in and spot things."

As news executives begin to deal with fallout from the crisis, it can be helpful to consult colleagues and other professionals who can assist them in their decision making, Monterey's Garcia says. "I'd definitely call some of my editor friends," she says. "A lot of times you make decisions in the heat of the moment or on deadline. I'd want to walk through this with someone and say, 'What holes do you see?' "

Garcia also suggests seeking advice from journalism ethicists.

As it struggled with how to handle its plagiarism case last summer, the Seattle Times did just that. The paper hired Robert M. Steele, Poynter's journalism values guru, to fly to Seattle to serve as a consultant. He helped the paper weather the crisis, Fancher says.

"We did not immediately go outside the paper," he says. "But once we realized it wasn't an isolated mistake, we wanted someone like Bob Steele to counsel us and help us assess what we might have done differently."

In the case of an egregious error, legal advice may also be needed. After an initial investigation, "if you emerge with doubts, you need people who can represent your interests," Grand Forks' Jacobs says. "I do not defend libel cases myself. I'd go to an attorney if that were a possibility."

Once newsroom leaders know how serious the problem is, they have to decide what to do with the employee who erred.

"There are two ways you can run a newsroom," Naughton says. "The first is to withhold trust from everybody until they earn it. The second is to extend trust to everyone." While he advocates the second approach, he says, "If they abuse it, you must act swiftly and deliberately to correct the problems or get rid of the person."

The seriousness of the punishment should be equal to the severity of the ethical lapse, he says. "Circumstances, relationships and the context matter." In the CBS case, "If it turns out that Rather didn't do anything but read his story on the air, why would you fire him? But if the person volunteered information to a political campaign that hadn't already been aired, that's a big problem." (Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who did most of the reporting on the ill-fated National Guard story, contacted Joe Lockhart, senior adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, to give him a key source's phone number.)

The employee's track record should also play a role in the decision, the University of Georgia's Furnad notes. "A lot of it depends on the individual's history in the business. Whether there is a history of these kinds of problems, whether the person has had a long, outstanding career or is a new person in the industry, will sway your decision on what action to take," he says.

After managers decide how to handle the personnel questions, they need to talk to the staff. And they'd better expect a lot of questions, not to mention a few accusations. When the Seattle Times staff met to discuss Dunphy's resignation, employees wanted to know: "Was it necessary for him to resign? Why didn't you catch this?"

"There were tense moments, tough moments," Fancher says. "There was heartfelt loss."

Being open is the only way to deal with the concerns of the staff, he says. "Whatever questions people had got put right in the middle of the room." But Fancher says that, in retrospect, he wishes the paper had been a bit more open. "In a personnel matter you are a little circumspect," he says. "But we really should have informed all newsroom supervisors so that when they got questions from their staff members, they would have had appropriate answers."

Although morale is likely to suffer after an ethical lapse, sincere efforts to restore credibility with audiences will also help in the eyes of employees. "The morale in any news organization is really based upon a sense that what you're doing is a great public service," says Seigenthaler, former editor and publisher of Nashville's Tennessean. "If morale is damaged by an error, the way to rebuild it is to correct it at the first possible moment."

Once editors have talked to the employees in question and the rest of the staff, they have to decide when--and how much--to tell readers, viewers or listeners. Seigenthaler says news organizations should reveal as much as possible.

"Transparency" is the industry mantra when misdeeds surface. Yet, when the Seattle Times' leadership followed that principle, it faced criticism.

"Some people said, 'Gee, couldn't you just let this guy go quietly away? Were front-page columns really necessary?' " Fancher says. "People get fired and we don't put it in the paper. But this was a breach of faith between the individual and the reader, so we owed the readers an accounting."

Other journalists argue that the audience doesn't need to know about every ethical transgression if no inaccuracy results.

In February, a reporter and photographer for WSAV-TV, the NBC affiliate in Savannah, Georgia, secretly taped a conversation with Barbara King, the communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, outside a private party. After the conversation appeared on that night's newscast, in a story about the priest sex abuse scandal, the diocese complained to the station and to its parent company, Media General. In response, WSAV reprimanded the employees. The station's news director, Kevin Brennan, issued a written apology to the diocese.

The viewers never knew it happened. The report was mentioned in subsequent newscasts, when the station explained it had overstated the number of Savannah priests who had abused children during a 50-year period. But WSAV decided not to air its apology or explain that the hidden camera interview, although legal, violated its reporting guidelines. Although the station considered going public, ultimately it decided not to tell its audience about the mistake, because "our act on the air did not provide any incorrect information to viewers," Brennan says.

Faced with a different ethical hurdle in August 2003, the Charlotte Observer took another approach. When it emerged that staff photographer Patrick Schneider had darkened, for dramatic effect, the backgrounds of three previously published photos for entry in a statewide competition, Schneider was reprimanded and suspended for three days without pay.

Although the daily's readers might never have known, the Observer decided to tell them everything. The paper ran a news story on the Local & State section front and a column explaining Schneider's misstep and punishment, and how the daily was clarifying for staff its guidelines on photo toning.

"We had two choices," says Barrows, the Observer's managing editor. "Be completely transparent or appear to be covering up somehow. Given these two choices, we'd take the former."

Others caution against telling readers about employee matters, due to privacy concerns. "You don't discuss personnel issues, a discipline or suspension," Monterey's Garcia says. "We had to part ways with a columnist, and people wanted to know why. But we said, 'That's not part of the public domain. It's not part of a news story.' "

However, serious wrongdoing and journalistic error can make privacy considerations moot. When USA Today's Kelley was forced to leave the daily, the paper's management initially resisted answering questions about his resignation and was uncertain if it should run corrections of his work or cover his misdeeds in a story. USA Today was widely criticized for its reticence and ended up giving readers a full accounting.

Once management decides how much to report, the next step is deciding how to play that information. The bigger the gaffe, the more prominent the placement should be, former CNN executive Johnson says. "That means if a major error was published on page one, the correction should be published on page one---not buried in a corrections box inside the publication."

While looking into a possible breach of journalistic faith, newsroom executives may find themselves on the unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable, side of a media inquiry.

They should respond as quickly and as openly as they can, Naughton says. "If you expect public figures, companies and charitable institutions to respond publicly and openly when you want them to, you have to be willing to do the same." Candor obliges you to talk to every outlet that calls, he says, from national television to your local alternative paper.

And when they're interviewed, managers should be careful not to shoot from the hip, Furnad says. "If you know the Washington Post has information and you're prepared to talk to them, you'd better be prepared the next day to talk to everyone else. You need to be consistent with the message."

Editors should be careful not to make things worse by trying to soften the truth or spin the facts, says Duke's Tifft, a former Time magazine associate editor. "Be as straight as you can," she says. "Whenever I call a press secretary, I want them to tell me one of two things: Either 'I know and I can tell you,' or 'I know and I can't tell you.' That's doubly true in a crisis," she says. "If you can't say, then say you don't have the answers yet but you will have them later."

If newsroom leaders have public relations professionals fielding calls, they should keep them in the loop, says Tifft, who served as an assistant press secretary at the Federal Election Commission in the 1970s. As a press officer "I've been in situations where I've been blindsided by information, and it's damaging," she says. "After that, reporters don't trust you, or they think you were lying."

And managers should make sure they don't forget their watchdog role, even while under fire. Some critics blasted CBS for backing off the issue of Bush's National Guard service after the network aired its story based on apparently bogus documents. News organizations too often shrink from a story after they make a mistake, Naughton says.

After a crisis, news organizations may want to revisit their codes of conduct. "It's important to establish a protocol for the future for how they will handle these kinds of stories," says Aly Colón, ethics group leader and diversity program director at the Poynter Institute.

But editors shouldn't simply publish the changes and consider things fixed. They have to communicate constantly with staff about ethics. "You can hold a series of meetings with the staffs of all the bureaus," Furnad says. "You tell them face to face that this is what is expected of you going forward."

After the news organization bounces back from the crisis, managers should keep talking to viewers and readers about journalism's challenges and ethics, editors and news directors say.

And if they don't already have an ombudsman, they should hire one, says Tifft. "The New York Times finally saw the light" when it decided last year to hire its first public editor, says Tifft. "An ombudsman can serve as an early warning system for the paper and a way for readers to let off steam."

Even when there is no steam to let off, says the Charlotte Observer's Barrows, news outlets should let readers know what they're doing. "In general, newspapers need to be more transparent, not only about missteps and controversy, but about their processes and values on a day-to-day basis, to help our readers understand what we're doing." He says the Observer is trying to devote more space to explaining the processes of newsgathering and presentation.

Barrows urges journalists to talk to one another about ethics. "We're all in this together," he says. "We ought to talk about it so that fewer of us do it again." He praised Schneider, who has presented his photos--before and after background alterations--to groups of journalists so they can learn from his mistake.

Surviving an ethical lapse is perhaps the greatest challenge a newspaper, station, or network can weather. But if it shows integrity while under fire, it has the opportunity to bolster its credibility and maybe even that of journalism itself. In most cases, media outlets have responded well to the crises of late, says John Seigenthaler.

"If you look at corporate America, the level of disgraceful conduct has been very, very high," he says. "In every case, we've seen denial, breast-beating and self-aggrandizement."

"Of all the institutions, the one that has acknowledged errors has been the news industry," Seigenthaler says. Although short-term credibility has been damaged, "the willingness of the industry to acknowledge its mistakes offers nothing but certainty that long-term credibility has been reinforced."

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