Confronting the Culture  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2005

Confronting the Culture   

The culprit behind the recurring clusters of plagiarism and fabrication scandals isnt just irresponsible youth or a few bad apples or the temptations of the Internet. It may be the newsroom culture itself.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Related reading:
   » The Unethical Timeline

Out of excuses? It sure seems like it.

In the not-too-distant past, journalism sages, columnists and otherwise rational old people were quick to condemn the ethically lax, morally inept, not-able-to-handle-the-pressure-of-the-big-time "kids these days" as the root of the plagiarism and fabrication problem. Young journalists--whom one newspaper columnist I interviewed defined as anyone under the age of 40--can thank Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair for the slew of blame-it-on-the-young diatribes.

If only the problem were that simple. Since Glass' fictionalizing was discovered in 1998, the journalism industry has continued to posit a number of perfectly legitimate cures for the recurring spates of ethical transgressions: We need new ethics codes, a system of fact-checking, tougher editors who ask hard questions of reporters, lectures for new hires and, if all else fails, the latest plagiarism detection software. But as the recent round of cheating cases cropped up--a collection that included a wide array of culprits, from veterans and stars of the profession to those who claimed they weren't really journalists--there was a decided lack of excuses put forth. No whining about temptations of the Internet. Little bemoaning the sad state of youth.

Has the search for why been called off? Or is the industry ready to tackle a much more difficult matter: the culture?

Nobody wants to hear this. "Culture" is so new-agey, touchy-feely, some would say "soft," awfully gauzy for a place as crass, competitive and cynical as a newsroom.

But those who espouse taking a look at the journalism culture as a possible cause of ethics ills say a fix requires drawing clear distinctions between what is acceptable and what isn't, getting rid of double standards and drastic inequality, and making accuracy as big a rallying cry as beating the competition. What kinds of behavior do newsrooms reward? What messages does that send?

Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, has been in the news business for 50 years. He examined these issues closely as one of the main investigators USA Today tapped to look at Jack Kelley's fabrications and how the newsroom's culture may have enabled a breach of ethics to go on for so long. Kovach agrees with the theory that the industry has run out of excuses for plagiarism and fabrication. He says if there is to be an ultimate solution, "whoever's in charge of the newsroom is going to have to create a culture and an atmosphere within which everybody knows this is not acceptable. You can't cheat and stay here. The integrity of everything we put into our report has to be guaranteed by everybody in the process.... You, each person, has a personal responsibility for that.... And in the competitive world we live in now, there are enough people who are still prepared to ease the rules in order not to be beaten on the big stories all the time."

Newsrooms praise those who get the stuff nobody else gets-- la Blair and Kelley and who knows how many lesser-known creative criminals (not to mention perfectly honest and splendid reporters). As long as news organizations are prepared to allow competitive pressures to be an excuse to ease up on integrity, says Kovach, "it's going to keep happening."

Deni Elliott, who teaches media ethics at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, says the one thing the news business hasn't looked at in plagiarism and fabrication cases "is what journalism as an industry does to promote cheating." She explains: "Things that award the exact quote, the exact moment in terms of a picture..if the focus is on that tiny product, then I think that that sends a message that that's what ultimately matters."

Then there's the increasing pressure to produce, produce, produce--in a 24-hour, multimedia news world of rampant downsizing. "The more pressure that is put on journalists to produce more, faster, quicker, cheaper, the more the industry encourages cutting corners, which is just another way of saying cheating," Elliott says.

It's a lot easier to blame youth or bad apples, she says. And we've tried that. Not so easy to look squarely at our own culture.

The GoodWork Project is an investigation, spearheaded by three psychologists, that looks at how market forces affect a person's ability to do good work in many professions, including journalism. The project acknowledges that "noteworthy" and "ethical" don't always rest in the same piece of work. As its Web site explains: "Of course, work can be good simply in a technical sense, or good in only an ethical sense, but the project is particularly interested in those persons and institutions that manage to realize both connotations of the descriptor 'good.' "

How interested is journalism in both? How often is ethical work rewarded, as opposed to purely technical work?

In June, I spoke on a panel at Georgetown University to journalism students from around the country who were participating in a Washington internship program. Some of their questions reflected an interesting view of the profession. These students had already figured out that accuracy and tantalizing copy weren't necessarily soul mates. And they were worried.

How do I deal with pressure from my bosses to get information as quickly as possible, to scoop the competition, and still be accurate? one student asked, as if they might be mutually exclusive.

"The tragic thing is that often they're right," says Catherine S. Manegold, a journalism professor at Emory University, visiting professor at New York University and former reporter at the New York Times. There are a lot of newsrooms, she says, where that's a genuine tension. Manegold's students often ask her what they should do if put in a situation where their bosses' demands run counter to ethics and accuracy. As a reporter, "I sometimes held back on even telling an editor about a story until I knew I had really nailed it," she says, adding that her students don't yet know that reporters do have some control over when they file a story.

A second student at the Georgetown talk asked how he should respond to a statement that he should always want his stories to be on the front page--as if writing for any other part of the paper, which is where his stories were running, isn't good enough.

I suggested he could interpret that statement differently: that he should write for A1, regardless of what the story was; that any piece, well crafted, could be a front-page contender. I was trying to boost his spirits. But is that what was meant by the comment?

Just look at the message sent by some of our former role models. Kovach notes that there was one little thread that connected Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Jack Kelley: "Common to all three was the desire to give the boss what he wanted, the desire to please," he says. "Most of us consider that a fairly good trait... You gotta love a kid who wants to give me what I want." But that can be dangerous, Kovach says, if an editor puts such a person in a position where the only way he or she can succeed is to cheat.

What often goes along with that elevated status is lax oversight. Far from being a misstep in a normally well-run ethical machine, this is standard journalistic practice. Some people are above the law.

The Sacramento Bee found out how badly such double standards can come back to hurt you when it couldn't confirm the existence of 43 people named in Diana Griego Erwin's columns over her 12-year career at the paper. Her copy was full of detail, touching vignettes, perfect personalities; it sparkled. And in many cases, it appears, it was bogus.

"How could Griego Erwin's work have escaped editorial scrutiny for so long?" the Bee asked in a June report on its investigation. Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez cited the columnist's elevated status and her impressive journalistic credentials, which included work on a team that won a Pulitzer at the Denver Post. "With a high-profile columnist, especially with the credentials present in this case, it is not first nature or even second nature to ask them if the person they're writing about actually exists," Rodriguez said in the report. (Griego Erwin, who denies wrongdoing, resigned from the Bee in May, citing "personal reasons.")

It'd be tough to continually ask any reporter if people they're quoting actually exist. "Do you have to have those conversations?" asks Russell Frank, a journalism professor at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Frank tries to picture a reporter's response when asked if he really went to the places mentioned in a story. "Well for crying out loud," Frank says. "I wrote it. Of course I did." It's "hard to imagine what morale would be like in a newsroom where everyone was grilled" in such a manner about every story they wrote.

But retooling the culture shouldn't mean turning it into the dreaded culture of fear. Bringing about change is more subtle than handing out a list of Five Accusatory Questions to Ask Every Good Reporter, and more time-consuming: It's fostering an environment with high standards that apply to everyone and a team-oriented philosophy that we're all in this together.

The Detroit Free Press discovered a much more systemic problem than one errant columnist when Mitch Albom's detailed description in an April 3 column of something that hadn't happened yet (and, in fact, never did) was approved by a number of editors. Copy editors were under the impression they shouldn't do much to columnists' work, the paper reported in a May 16 story about its investigation of the Albom case. At a staff meeting, the report said, "years of frustration over perceived favoritism toward Albom tumbled out in a series of angry speeches."

Is anyone surprised by this? Is there another way to reward star writers other than telling the copy desk to lay off?

Giving a great writer room is one thing; leaving her out there on her own in demanding situations is another. "Good editors frequently use the phrase, 'How can I help you?' " says Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute, "and that's a phrase that we shouldn't reserve for the rookies." Experienced writers need that support, too, because newsrooms ask them to venture into what Steele calls "the class six rapids"--the most difficult in white-water sports. "If we're asking our columnists and other writers to do really important, difficult work on a continuous basis," he says, "just merely sending them out into the metaphorical one-person kayak into the class six rapids with no safety and support system seems pretty unwise."

But creating a supportive, ethical culture isn't just the job of editors. The tone is set at the top--and the bottom line, say many, has played a leading role in shaping the news environment.

To the incredibly high pressures weighing on top columnists, Steele adds a less-obvious one: the pressure to make money. "If a columnist achieves that star status," he says, that "has economic, financial connections for the paper... So editors and publishers may either intentionally or unintentionally tighten the thumbscrew on a columnist or a writer, demanding greater productivity, more compelling writing, more bang for the buck."

Many news organizations are demanding more bang for fewer bucks, as budgets are trimmed, training and mentoring are nixed, time for long, heady talks on attribution is nonexistent. Catherine Manegold talks about "so many different things weighing in on the newsroom..all these little ways in which corners are cut to get the product out." She particularly worries about younger reporters not getting the attention and guidance they need. Unless they're bringing with them a strong core sense of ethics, their own personal sense of ethics, she says, "I think it can be a real mess and a difficult thing for young people to navigate right now."

And they're entering a profession that is viewed more and more like a business and not--as it so lovingly was post-Watergate--as a vital part of a functioning democracy. Manegold says the cultural attitude toward journalism is at a low point, both in the way the profession is seen from the outside and also how it's viewed by some practitioners themselves. Her students are growing up in a generation where it's all about saturation coverage and sensationalism. They're "surrounded by a different kind of journalism or speed of journalism, and it's really easy for young people to confuse the really cheesy stuff and see it all as interchangeable."

It's not just young people who can begin to have a different view of the profession. David Callahan, author of the 2004 book "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead," says a focus on the bottom line creates problems with ethics in many industries. Journalists, he says, feel their industry is being corrupted by money pressures, which lead to a broader cynicism. "The corruption of their trade by money, by the profit motive, may create a sense of, 'My profession is not so valuable, why should I value the trade so much?' " Callahan said in an interview.

All of these forces, from the correctible double standards to the seemingly insurmountable profit pressures, affect a newsroom's culture. There aren't easy fixes to these problems--some may not be fixable at all--but they raise provocative questions about what messages news organizations send about what they value. Is it speed? Or accuracy? Thoughtfulness? Or exclusiveness?

How do you create a culture that values all of it equally? A culture that pushes reporters to dig up scoops and attention-getting stories, write it all like the great American novel, do it faster than seems humanly possible--yet not leave the impression that playing strictly by the rules takes a back seat to that elusive star quality?

As the title of his book suggests, Callahan sees a much broader cheating trend in society at large. While he acknowledges that his commentary is somewhat speculative--"trends in unethical behavior are hard to document," he writes--he says that "available evidence strongly suggests that Americans are not only cheating more in many areas but are also feeling less guilty about it. When 'everybody does it,' or imagines that everybody does it, a cheating culture has emerged."

Leonard Pitts Jr., a syndicated columnist who writes for the Miami Herald, says there's no way to know if there's more malfeasance in journalism today than in the past. But his gut tells him there is. His views echo Callahan's findings. "I think it's a cultural problem," says Pitts, who learned in late May that he had been the victim of blatant plagiarism. (Chris Cecil, an editor at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, ripped off large swaths of Pitts' often personal columns.) There's cheating in pop music with digitally altered sound, Pitts points out. There's cheating in sports with steroid use. "It's get to the goal line as fast as you can, and the means don't matter."

Most of those interviewed for this article didn't think journalism had experienced an increase in cheating over the years--or at least they said they were reluctant to say that--but many see the cultural pressures to move up the societal ladder playing a role.

One of the things Susan E. Tifft has learned from dealing with students is that "they have had to fight so hard in this credentialed society to get where they are"--whether that's Harvard or Stanford or Duke or whatever--"that they have this notion that they have to do certain things and cut certain corners to get ahead."

Tifft, a former Time magazine associate editor who now teaches journalism and public policy at Duke University, says some students--not hers, because they haven't talked to her about it--say, "'I can afford to be ethical once I get to where I need to go. But on the way there, everybody else is cheating, everybody else is plagiarizing, so if I don't do it, then I'm stupid.'" The perception is: "I can't afford to be ethical now, but I'll be ethical later."

The GoodWork Project cites the same finding among the young, an attitude that in order to be successful, to try to get to the top, they should put their ethics on hold.

When young people look at what's happened in society, with Wall Street executives, top politicians and others in positions of power, Tifft says, "they don't see the adults doing much better."

Actually, they (and Americans of every other age) see the powerful doing a lot better. And doing better where it really matters: in their bank accounts. The lesson that cheaters often win hasn't been lost on the masses. Callahan's book deals with the rising inequality in the classes--the rich get rich, rich, richer, while those in the rank-and-file jobs have a harder and harder time making ends meet. That's been the story for journalists as well.

The sort of rewards today for top achievers in the profession didn't exist in decades past, says Callahan, a senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based public policy center. "All it takes to be a millionaire in journalism is kind of playing your cards right in a certain kind of way," he says. You can be a hot, young writer who pens clever stories that lead to a TV show or a best-selling book. "The fact that those rewards are there, they can't help but kind of distract us," Callahan says. "Huge financial rewards can't help but distract people from the integrity of their trade."

At the same time, he says, economic pressures for the less fortunate are mounting. Journalism salaries haven't gone up much over the past two decades, while the cost of living, particularly in urban areas, has risen dramatically. (And the load of debt students take on to pay for college has skyrocketed as well.) On the one hand, you have the few lucky millionaires, he says, and "on the other hand, you have ordinary journalists who are getting squeezed more than ever. And I think that's a formula for bad ethics."

In his book, Callahan touches on the Glass and Blair scandals, commenting that both journalists' actions reaped rewards, at least in the short-term. Even after Glass was exposed as a fraud, he notes, he netted a six-figure book advance from Simon & Schuster. "Inequality," he writes, "has also pulled us apart, weakening our faith that others follow the same rules that we do."

It'd be wonderful if the salaries for regular journalists increased, particularly in light of those student loans people are racking up to "get credentialed." You do, as they say, get what you pay for. If society also stopped handing out six-figure advances to cheaters, we'd all applaud. But short of making life fair, journalism can at least work to make its individual newsrooms fair and kick the ethically challenged out of the profession--something the news business has done a much better job of than other industries.

Callahan says he thinks in journalism--unlike other businesses he examined--it's become harder to cheat because the standards are much higher than they were years ago. ("The proper question isn't, 'Why is there more?' " he says. "But, 'Why is there a lot?' ")

"What we're seeing is more demonstrations of journalists themselves insisting on tougher standards on themselves," Kovach says. "I take it overall as a very positive sign that each generation of journalists in my lifetime has continued to try to sharpen and strengthen the integrity of the work that they do."

Kovach says he knows in his career there were instances of newsroom malfeasance, some of which weren't treated harshly. The mere mention of a name, for instance, would make people say, "Oh, he could pipe a quote better than anybody."

(I've heard similar stories of life in the newsroom way back when, only to see an alleged embellisher praised by journalists as a pillar of the profession. What kind of message does that send?)

"It was not accepted," Kovach says, "but there were no great pains taken to pin it down and hold people accountable, well, because nobody else did." It may be the reason, he adds, that journalists were so comfortable telling each other, "Boy, don't ever let them see how the sausage is made." Talk like that suggests a level of guilt and acceptability of guilt, he says. "That sort of thing is as much an indication of the elevation of standards as I can think of."

Deni Elliott, too, sees a bright spot in all the state-of-the-industry gloom. A cheating culture? She strongly disagrees. "I think that the fact that we're..labeling acts as cheating shows a greater level of ethical sophistication," she says. "Once we can begin to label something as cheating, which carries the sense that there's something wrong here, then we can begin to analyze what's wrong and why we think it's wrong."

The labeling may be the hardest part. Most of the high-profile cases have involved clear-cut instances of reporters writing about figments of their imagination, or pilfering large chunks of other people's stories. But the grayer areas--when to attribute, what's in the public domain, what's an acceptable journalistic convention--remain fuzzy.

"I do think that the profession is confused," Elliott says. "I think that the profession has failed to draw a clear line between legitimate use of what I would call common knowledge and use of information somebody else developed, and I would call that plagiarism if it's used without citation."

It's a journalism convention for news outlets to not cite themselves when repeating the same boilerplate paragraph, she says. If information is published in three or more sources, the convention is that it's common knowledge. Small newspapers might take a press release and publish it as if it were the paper's own work. A local news station can put a Video News Release on the air and allow the audience to be fooled into thinking the station produced it. "Isn't that plagiarism?" Elliott asks.

There's confusion about journalism's own basic conventions, she says. And there's a tendency for news organizations to want audiences to give them as much credit as possible. "Both lead to a tendency to downplay other sources of information," Elliott says. "So when you've got that kind of foundation..it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to somebody why they can't pick up a really great quote" and just drop it into their story.

At the Detroit Free Press, columnists, at least, were picking up great quotes and dropping them into their pieces. (The practice is hardly limited to Detroit.) It was a journalistic convention, despite the fact that the paper's ethics policy vaguely warned against it. The Free Press' review of Mitch Albom's work found "deep confusion among editors and columnists over how to credit quotes in opinion columns when those quotes were gathered by others."

Then there was this alarming paragraph in the Free Press' report: "At times, quotes cited by Albom were worded slightly differently from how they appeared elsewhere in the media, with the quotes seeming to be livelier in some cases. Asked about those quotes, Albom insisted the passages were 'essentially accurate.' "

Is that the standard we should follow?

"I think it is a genuine and sincere lack of clarity about what's right and what's wrong," says Susan Tifft of the general confusion about what constitutes cheating. News organizations "just have to be crystal clear and think of all the incidents that arise, and how they view them." This is particularly necessary, she says, for young and inexperienced journalists.

But it's clear journalists of all ages and ranks have different views of what's acceptable and what's not. "We shouldn't lie, steal and cheat," says Steele. "Those actions violate the basic values and tenets of both personal and professional behavior. But plagiarism is a word that is not as clear in its meaning as many of us often thought... How much credit, to whom and when?" can be a subtle question.

Even "don't make stuff up" needs clarification, as the Albom episode shows. The sports columnist interviewed two former Michigan State players shortly before the April 2 NCAA Final Four match-up between their alma mater and North Carolina. The men, both NBA players, told Albom they planned to attend the game, according to the Free Press, but in the end, they didn't. Neither did Albom. In a column that he had to file before the game took place, he described the men in the stands and the scene at the stadium.

A fabrication? The Free Press didn't call it that, opting to say Albom "misled readers."

Of course, reporters usually don't make up stuff with their editor's knowledge--do they?

While newsrooms have become stricter in cracking down on those who commit the biggest sins of the profession, they haven't always been explicit enough in explaining what's right and what's wrong--particularly as some of the wrongs used to be business as usual. Ethicists say that in fostering an ethical culture, actions speak a heck of a lot louder than words.

The ancient Greeks believed that "one learns to be a good person from other good people," says Mark J. Hanson, interim director of the Center for Ethics at the University of Montana. "And today one does that by looking up to either one's parents or one's boss or the organizational culture and the leadership... An ethical culture is really set by management and really needs to be displayed and fostered and encouraged in a positive way by management."

Unfortunately, there's no simple set of instructions on how to build the perfect culture. But merely handing out an ethics code isn't going to cut it.

###