A Matter of Trust
Some years back, I was editing a story written by a young reporter when I found myself wondering about a detail in one paragraph. The specifics are hazy in my mind; it was a nice touch, I recall, but one that seemed a little too convenient. Frankly, I wondered if it was made up.
What I remember clearly was my discomfort as I sat across from the reporter. Since my unease was so vague, I wrestled with how to broach the issue -- or whether to do so at all. Simply asking about it seemed tantamount to an accusation of fabrication.
Fair or not, awkward as it might be, I knew it was my job to bring it up. When I did, as gently as possible, wondering if that’s exactly how it had gone down, I was amazed by the reply. While the reporter had indeed witnessed what he described, the scene actually occurred in another location and had been transplanted to a spot that the writer thought was more supportive of the story’s theme. Even worse, the reporter thought that was okay.
Well, noooooooo, I said. You can’t do that.
Unlike fiction writers, reporters are limited to what actually happened, not what might have happened or what reads more smoothly. As John Hersey put it once, the legend on the journalist’s license is as clear as all caps can make it: NONE OF THIS IS MADE UP.
That incident came to mind this weekend as I followed the coverage of journalism's latest ethical scandal: the unmasking of Jayson Blair, the young New York Times reporter whose brief but certain-to-be memorable career of plagiarism and fabrication occupied a significant piece of territory in the Sunday edition. (“Pilloried” was the verb the BBC chose to describe Blair’s treatment by his former employer, likening the four inside pages cataloguing his crimes to the wooden stocks with holes for the head and hands that exposed lawbreakers from the middle ages to the 18th century to public scorn.)
I’ve written about plagiarism and fabrication before, but I didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on the Blair case until I read an article by Jack Shafer, press critic for Slate.com, who provided a viewpoint—as a fabricator's editor—that I've rarely heard.
In 2001, Shafer edited an article by a freelancer named Jay Forman about fishing for monkeys in the Florida Keys, “key details” of which, as an editor’s note above the story says, “were fabricated.”
According to Shafer,
When Forman, who did go monkeyfishing, turned in a first, flat draft about his Florida Keys adventure, I encouraged him through several rewrites to add more writerly detail to increase the piece's verisimilitude. Forman complied, inventing numerous twists to the tale and even confessing intense remorse for things he never did.Yep, I thought. Good lesson—one that more editors (and reporters) need to take to heart.
The lesson I learned isn't to refrain from asking writers for detail but to be skeptical about details that sound too good or that you had to push too hard to get the writer to uncover or that are suspicious simply because any writer worth his salt would have put them in his first draft.
But then Shafer follows that unusually frank mea culpa by absolving himself, and it seems to me, any other editor who winds up in the embarrassing position of having signed off on a story that was ripped off from another writer or invented:
All that said, it's almost impossible for an editor to beat a good liar every time out.Shafer lists a partial rogue’s gallery of unethical journalists unmasked in recent years, and adding Blair to the list, he draws this conclusion:
Blair, like Glass, Cooke, Smith, and Forman, got away with making things up for as long as he did because journalism is built on trust.The matter of trust was also invoked in the Times’ self-investigation, in a quote from Tom Rosenstiel, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism:
"It's difficult to catch someone who is deliberately trying to deceive you," Mr. Rosenstiel said. "There are risks if you create a system that is so suspicious of reporters in a newsroom that it can interfere with the relationship of creativity that you need in a newsroom—of the trust between reporters and editors."
Journalism, even the creative kind, is built on lots of things, but trust wouldn’t top my list. Good journalism is built on passionate inquiry, indefatigable pursuit of evidence, healthy skepticism, obsession for accuracy, and a near-pathological fear of error—a determination to get things right no matter what it takes.
Trust is important, but it's the bond between a news organization and its consumers that trumps the relationship between the people who produce the report, however arduous and painful that makes the process.
One of my most vivid memories from two decades as a working reporter is of the evening I sat in an editor’s office in the Washington Bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers—I was a national correspondent from 1989 to 1994—with my colleague Charlie Green. On speaker phone was a Knight Ridder lawyer who was vetting a story we’d written.
By our side was a stack of paper—notebooks, photocopies of records, printouts—that we turned to as the lawyer methodically made his way through the story, pausing repeatedly at a sentence, a quote, a paragraph, a fact, to ask: How do you know that?
It was nerve-wracking, and I suppose it would have been less stressful had our editors just trusted us. But thanks to the reporting we’d done, we were able to satisfy the lawyer and the story moved out across the wire.
Journalism does pose a daily test to integrity and perhaps, as Shafer, Rosenstiel, and others have argued, there is no foolproof defense against a cheat or thief.
But I think that lets too many in the newsroom off the hook too easily.
"Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter," Reid MacCluggage, former editor and publisher of the New London Day, has argued. "Our biggest weakness is unchallenged information."
Perhaps the only good thing that may come out of the Times case is that more editors will be less likely to give reporters the benefit of the doubt. It’s not an editor’s job to trust a reporter. It’s an editor’s job to challenge, to probe, to prosecute a story, to be the ally not of his or her colleague but of the reader who deserves a factual account.
Yes, it’s a difficult task, maybe even a Sisyphean one, but it’s that challenge that ennobles what journalists do.
Jayson Blair was wrong. As was Stephen Glass. Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle too.
But so were editors who trusted them. If anything good can come from this, it won’t be pretty, but it will be good for journalism.
It’s their job to vet stories. To role-play the reader. To have the dirty mind and see the double-entendres the writer is blind to—or perhaps thinks would be cute to get past the desk.
Tim McGuire, the former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reminded me today that “it’s a two-way street,” noting that many reporters would scream bloody murder if editors began challenging their work and work habits.
He's right. But every journalist needs to ask—and be ready to respond at any time to—the tough questions that an accurate news report, one that consumers can trust, demands:
Where did you get that? How do you know that?
It's a matter of trust.