Along the Tracks

Monday, May 12, 2003

Catching a fraud

The Jayson Blair saga at the New York Times is not just a blow to that newspaper. It will have repercussions throughout the industry. As a managing editor with nearly a decade’s experience overseeing reporting staffs, I am stunned that Blair was so wildly successful in advancing his career by fabrication, and baffled by the NYT’s failure to follow simple managerial procedures to assure quality.

I doubt there is a newsroom manager who has served any length of time who has not run into quality problems emanating from one reporter or another. Times Executive Editor Howell Raines has defended Blair’s “error rate” based on his newspaper’s dedication to finding and correcting errors - in other words, the NYT tries harder to make corrections, therefore more appear, regardless of who wrote the story. I don’t entirely buy the argument. Yes, the NYT has a slew of copy editors and fact-checkers to hunt down mistakes and make corrections. But anyone who manages journalists should realize the difference between what I would call “minor errors” and “major errors.”

“Minor errors” include misspelled names, incorrect titles, locations, etc. - all important for accuracy, but not important to the storyline itself. These are the kind of things that good journalistic practices (always asking the person to spell the name, repeating factual details back to the source, etc.) largely avoid. Thus, if one reporter is a repeat offender in this area, it is time for a refresher course in the basics. Sometimes a good in-house course on procedures works; sometimes one particular reporter needs an assignment where he or she can practice basic journalism: obits, police reports, court records, sports agate, etc. As those discussing the problem on “Fox News Sunday” noted, if you make basic errors in these common newspaper features, readers will be quick to point out the mistakes. Avoiding the “minor errors” is crucial to maintain the basic trust and respect of readers; fortunately, in this area, practice can make, if not perfect, at least quite good.

The second category of corrections - “major errors” - are integral to the story being told. Incomplete or inaccurate quotes, shuffled timelines, repeating accusations or defenses as facts, “painting a word picture” which does not reflect the actual scene, omitting comments or portions of the story which give a more accurate portrayal of the entire situation - all these errors can be body-blows to the trust built over long years by a news organization. Correcting such errors to the satisfaction of sources, people and organizations touched by the original story, and readers as a whole, is key to repairing relationships.

As an editor, let me assure you, I hate errors. But corrections do alleviate some of the problems errors create; missed errors, which go uncorrected, are like an untreated infection, getting worse, committing unseen havoc until they explode into visibility with widespread damage of trust inside and outside the news organization. Nothing good can possibly come from uncorrected errors. (A quick note: That’s why I appreciate it when people tell me about mistakes in my newspaper or my website - I’m in journalism to get things right. The vigilance and feedback of readers are a bedrock component of good journalism.)

The Blair situation is troubling, not just because the reporter betrayed trust and actually fabricated quotes, scenes, locations and entire stories, but also because the signs of problems in Blair’s reporting were present for years. It’s one thing to be duped by someone bent on deception; it’s quite another to ignore obvious failures on the part of a young journalist, and advance the person through the system despite those failures. Let me expound on this point a bit. In my own years overseeing journalists, from raw interns to seasoned veterans, I’ve run into both minor and major error problems. As I mentioned above, the minor errors, along with the requisite published corrections, can usually be dealt with by training and temporary assignment changes which emphasize practicing basic journalism. In my own experience, such straightforward management options have been more than enough to cure such sloppiness.

Major errors require something different, because they are signs of something different. As the New York Times mentioned in its Blair exposé, the foundation of journalism is finding and telling the truth. Errors which affect the truthfulness of a story represent a disregard for not just accuracy, but ethics. Honest mistakes which count as “major errors” can and do occur, but they are rare, because they interfere with the entire point of doing a news story. The reporter usually catches such errors in his or her own work of interviewing sources, going over notes, and re-reading a draft story.

If missed (or God forbid, fabricated) by the reporter, these inaccuracies can be difficult to discover at the editorial level, prior to publishing. However, readers and sources usually find major errors and point them out to both reporters and editors. This is where good management in a newsroom comes into play. First, the precise nature of the error needs to be assessed, and corrective measures which satisfy the sources, readership and journalistic devotion to truth must be put in place. That may mean a typical correction; a detailed correction which notes the distinction between what was reported and what was actually said or done; a highlighted correction story with its own headline; or even a new story run in a similar location to the original which explains the error and then tells the proper, accurate version of the story. Second, there needs to be a review of the reporter. If the incident in question was the first instance of major error, this review may simply involve going over journalistic procedures which help assure accuracy and balance. However, if there appears to be a pattern of major error - which I would count as two incidents in any six month period - there must be a formal discussion of the problem with the reporter and with all copy editors and newsroom management personnel who work with the reporter. A tightened set of procedures may be required; a close review of assignments, based on increased oversight, would also be in order. A formal report of the problems discussed and the solutions implemented would go in the reporter’s permanent file.

Another incident of major error would result in a formal reprimand, setting the stage for a suspension or termination. And of course, any case of intentional fabrication would result in immediate termination.

Blair’s betrayal of trust is inexcusable, but for my money, so is the callous disregard of trust by NYT management. Blair had a correction rate of over 50%! Even if we were to assume all those were “minor errors,” the situation cried out for a reassignment to rote reporting in an effort to build the basic skills of a good journalist. The Times wasn’t doing Blair any favors by letting him slide - not to mention the damage already being done to the newspaper’s reputation.

But the actual situation at the Times was even worse than this. Blair was committing “major errors” - and management was brushing them off. Editors were complaining to managers about Blair’s poor record of accuracy, particularly his “major errors,” and Blair was let off the hook time and again. Story sources and other journalists were citing incidents of fraud and plagiarism - including a news conference during the Washington sniper investigation which pointed out inaccuracies in one of Blair’s stories. These were basically ignored. Executive Editor Raines is apparently under the belief that any formal reprimands would have “stigmatized” the young reporter. But if there is no procedure to handle these problems, how do they ever get solved? How much is Blair “stigmatized” now that he has been able to follow his folly to the bitter end?

Even more important than laying bare the errors and falsehoods in Blair’s work (important though that was) is an honest effort to reform newsroom management at the Times. Without such reform, this problem or something similar will appear again.

Finally, I feel the need to caution those who immediately assume the blind eye turned to Blair’s failings was due to the “diversity” issue. Yes, Blair is black, and yes, it does appear his hiring and superb opportunities were a part of the Times’ effort to promote newsroom diversity. But it does not necessarily follow that this ideologically-driven program by the Times resulted in different rules and oversight for this reporter when compared to any other young journalist on the payroll. NPR’s Juan Williams, also speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” pointed out there are scads of young white journalists who get incredible opportunities at newspapers like the Times based solely on connections, rather than ability. The Times’ management failures may well be across-the-board, and Blair’s betrayal just the most spectacular symptom of a larger systemic illness. In their editorials and stories about Blair, the Times mentions a number of ongoing reviews. One of those should include a look at both error rates and types of errors for all their journalists. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that the Times would discover a number of other problem situations, and that in each case, the managerial “solutions” implemented had more to do with the reporter’s relationships with authority figures inside the newspaper than with the types or frequency of the errors involved. Blair apparently had a gripping personality, particularly as judged by Howell Raines, and I would not be surprised to learn this relationship had more to do with his advancement, unimpeded by obvious failings, than either his writing or his skin color.

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