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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

An Unwelcome Encore   

This was an encore performance no journalist wanted to see. Last year, Boston Globe

Related reading:   When Disaster Strikes

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     


This was an encore performance no journalist wanted to see. Last year, Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith lost their jobs for allegedly plagiarizing and/or fabricating sources, and former New Republic Associate Editor Stephen Glass passed off fiction as fact. Late this summer, similar dramas unfolded at the Arizona Republic and the Indianapolis Star/News.
The Republic fired columnist Julie Amparano August 20 on the grounds that "some of the people quoted in [her] column are untraceable. We can't find them or prove they exist," the Phoenix paper told readers in a front-page, four-paragraph apology the next day. It followed August 24 with a lengthy page-one story detailing the investigation that led to her termination.
The Star/News--the Republic's sister paper in Central Newspapers Inc.--dismissed TV writer Steve Hall September 7 after uncovering further evidence of plagiarism. He had been suspended August 27 "when editors discovered that a story he had submitted for publication was strikingly similar to one written at another newspaper and distributed by wire services," Executive Editor Frank Caperton wrote in a note to readers. Hall's story was not published.
Amparano, a veteran reporter whose thrice-weekly "Conversations" only began July 12, denies any wrongdoing. Instead, she accuses the Republic of hypocrisy. If not being able to produce verification of a source constitutes a firing offense, then many of her journalism colleagues are in trouble, too, she contends.
"Š[T]he practice that purportedly resulted in my termination, namely, the fact that I did not verify all of the names of my sources and obtain or verify their telephone numbers and addresses, is common throughout print journalism and the Republic in particular," Amparano said in a statement released by her lawyer.
Republic Managing Editor Julia Wallace bristles at the suggestion that her staff is anything but professional. She concedes reporters "may or may not get phone numbers" for, say, spectators commenting on a parade, but they should get contact information for key sources--certainly for those on whom entire columns are pinned.
When the newspaper tried to track down Amparano's sources, "we couldn't find an engineer, an accountant, a banker--people who should be easy to find if they exist," Wallace says.
The paper began investigating Amparano's work following newsroom rumors of invented quotes and imaginary "Conversations." Suspicions crested with the recurring name Jennifer Morgan, variously identified in two columns and in earlier stories as an attorney, a dental patient, an advertising rep and a sophomore at Arizona State University--and with sources such as Luis Adler Varela, a white racist improbably unaware of his Hispanic heritage for most of his 25 years. Despite the help of a private investigator, the paper could not substantiate 20 of 24 people from 11 of Amparano's 17 columns.
Editors confronted Amparano with their findings Thursday, August 19, challenging her to produce evidence of her sources. She was fired late the next afternoon.
That wasn't sufficient time, according to the 39-year-old Amparano, who came to the Republic and her hometown of Phoenix in 1994 after reporting for the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Daily News and the Wall Street Journal. "Š[V]ery often sources do not want to subject themselves to added public scrutiny by providing us with the means to easily locate them," Amparano's statement reads.
Wallace, who joined the paper in December, says the episode has given new urgency to newsroom plans "to rewrite our ethics policy." Ironically, she says, she'd set up a newsroom credibility committee in early 1999 and the paper "has actually gotten a lot tougher on anonymous sources in the last four or five months."
The Star/News' Caperton, who's retiring in December, doesn't plan to overhaul his newsroom's reporting and editing policies. "I don't want to stand up in front of a bunch of honest people and tell them to be honest," says the editor, adding he's encountered only a few newsroom cheats in 25 years as a senior editor of newspapers.
TV and radio critic Hall could not be reached for comment about his dismissal. The Associated Press reported he had told Indianapolis station WRTV he considered it "unfortunate that I'm being fired over similarities in a handful of stories considering that I wrote more than 5,200 stories during the 12 years I worked" for the Star and the merged Star/News.
Beyond the Republic and Star/ News newsrooms, the incidents have sparked more talk about ethics and deadline pressures, especially in column writing, as well as praise for journalistic self-policing.
Charges of plagiarism and fabrication "reaffirm this stereotype that columnists are lazy," says Regina Brett, president of the 355-member National Society of Newspaper Columnists and one of this year's winners of the National Headliner Award for column writing. She tries to come up with at least six ideas for the three metro columns she writes weekly for the Akron Beacon Journal.
But she's shaken off a burden familiar to many columnists: public speaking.
"When you get a column, you're an instant celebrityŠ. You get so busy doing the TV shows and the church talks and the Rotary Club that you're squeezing in time to do the column, which should be the No. 1 priority," Brett says. She eliminated most speaking engagements, and what she considered other extraneous commitments, after a bout with breast cancer several years ago. With more time for reporting, her columns are better, Brett says. "I'm more accountable now."
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs, a metro columnist for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, has the same no-speech policy. Public appearances "do interfere with the column," because of time demands and the celebrity status they reinforce, she says.
Columnists should rely on reporting, says Bob Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York. They should "meet the same standards for accuracy and fairness that other reporters doŠ. As a columnist, you have the privilege of expressing your own opinion, but that doesn't give you the right to mislead your readers by fabricating information or misinterpreting facts."
The Star/News' Caperton won't speculate on whether violations of journalistic code are on the rise. "We've just had a fair number of well-publicized cases," he observes.
"We need to guard against seeing this as something new," echoes syndicated columnist Geneva Overholser. While editor of the Des Moines Register from 1988 to 1995, she "let a reporter go" because of plagiarism--and at subsequent conferences with other editors learned that "at least half of them" had taken the same action in their own newsrooms. Though the Register informed readers of the problem, "there was no national coverage," she says. "And I think that was typical."
It's important to raise up media abuses "for wider inspection," Overholser continues. But, "if we just beat ourselves up, we add to the public view that we're making mistakes.... More of us in media ought to write about what this means in our attempts to hold our standards high."
The reason lapses make news, Overholser says, "is that they're the exceptions."