Four things the Cape Cod Times did right in handling revelation of serial fabrication
Just when I thought we were done with journalism scandals for 2012, another serial fabricator has been exposed.
Tuesday, the editor and publisher of the Cape Cod Times announced that longtime reporter Karen Jeffrey admitted to fabricating sources and quotes in her reporting.
"In an audit of her work, Times editors have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998, when we began archiving stories electronically," they write in an apology to readers.
Jeffrey is the third mass fabricator to be exposed this year. The first was New Canaan news reporter Paresh Jha, who fabricated sources and quotes in at least 25 stories, and the second is a former staff photographer for Sun-Times Media, who made up names and quotes for photo essays.
There were also fabrications by Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey. I will soon publish my annual round up of the year in plagiarism and fabrication, and this year's tally is notable for the cases of fabrication.
Jeffrey's offenses stand out for their frequency, and for the length of time she got away with it. Fabrication is always scandalous, but it's all the more outrageous when someone can get away with it for so long. I imagine Jeffrey's former colleagues are struck by that as well.
Another notable aspect of this case is the paper's reaction. I think thus far they've done several things right in terms of handling the incidents and communicating with readers.
That's in stark contrast to how the New Canaan News handled the Jha scandal. As I detailed while covering it, the News offered very little information to readers about his offenses, how they were discovered and investigated, and what the paper planned to do about them.
The sole communication to readers was a 152-word brief published late on a Friday afternoon. And even when I told editor Ashley Varese that I'd uncovered other Jha fabrications, she seemed uninterested in receiving the information.
Though there is still more to come, the Cape Cod Times' initial communication to readers offered the kind of information and accountability we should expect when the worst happens. I think they did four things right in the apology to readers, which I detail below. I also have one suggestion for something they could have done differently.
1. Accept responsibility. Readers and the public first learning of the incident need to feel it's being treated seriously, and that the organization accepts responsibility for letting it occur. That means labeling the article an apology, not a note to readers or a letter from the editor, etc. Readers expect an apology, and it's important to be clear and sincere in offering it.
The Times' apology also includes several places where the publisher and editor, whose names should be and are on the apology, express sincere regret and accept responsibility for what happened.
"There is an implied contract between a newspaper and its readers," the apology reads. "The paper prints the truth. Readers believe that it's true." Then go on to say that "it is with heavy heart that we tell you the Cape Cod Times has broken that trust."
They also address one major question head on:
How did this happen? Or more important, how did we allow this to happen? It's a question we cannot satisfactorily answer. Clearly we placed too much trust in a reporter and did not verify sourcing with necessary frequency.
I also think the last paragraph of the apology does a good job of expressing why they need to meet a high standard of disclosure for this incident:
We needed to share these details, as uncomfortable as they are, because we are more than a private company dealing with a personnel issue – we are a newspaper and we have broken our trust with you. We deeply regret this happened and extend our personal apology to you.
2. Share details of the offenses, and the investigation into them. The apology is long, mostly because it spends several paragraphs detailing Jeffrey's offenses and offering specific examples. This is important detail. It helps the reader understand exactly what the reporter did. It adds a layer of specificity that makes it clear the paper investigated the writer and is wiling to share what it found.
Simply saying you looked into previous work isn't enough. Share what you find. Show that you did the work. Right now, the paper's word alone isn't good enough. Readers need facts and evidence. They deserve them, too.
Another good choice by the paper was to check the work of other staffers. This helps determine whether Jeffrey was a lone wolf, or if the paper has an even bigger problem.
3. Explain what's happened so far, and what is yet to happen. Even though the paper appears to have done a thorough examination of Jeffrey's work, more fabrications and problems may come to light. It's too early to treat this as a closed case. The apology says that the paper is "in the process of removing Jeffrey's questionable stories or passages of stories from capecodonline.com and will replace the suspect content with a note that explains why it was removed. That process is beginning today."
It also notes that, "This column is our first step toward addressing what we uncovered."
This signals the paper is committed to sharing new details as they emerge. That's an important commitment, and one that the Times needs to follow through on.
4. Detail action being taken to prevent this from happening again. A natural question on the minds of readers is what the paper will do to restore trust and prevent this from happening again.
"We must learn from this painful lesson and take steps to prevent this from happening again," reads the Times apology. "Moving forward, we will be spot-checking reporting sources more frequently; choosing stories at random and calling sources to verify they exist."
And: "Be assured we will use this incident as part of an ethics training session for newsroom staff."
Again, being specific about what will change is important to help restore trust. Even more important, of course, is actually implementing these measures.
If I have a quibble with the Times' apology, it's with its timing. The paper notes that it began investigating Jeffrey's work on November 12. That's several weeks ago. During this time, readers and the public knew nothing of the potential problems with her work.
I understand the need to take time to fully investigate her previous work, and the desire to wait until that process is complete before sharing it. However, we don't know if Jeffrey was suspended during this time. We also don't know why it took until Tuesday for her to confess to fabrication. (Though it appears from a tweet that may be from her that Jeffrey knew the jig was up as early as November 30.)
The paper could have communicated with readers when it first discovered the problem in mid-November, and explained that it was investigating her work. That public notification also could have sped up the process of spotting fabrication, since it inevitably brings extra scrutiny to Jeffrey's work. Then the Times could have followed up with a full accounting of the offenses.
Again, there is a lot the Times did well in its investigation of Jeffrey, its communication to readers, and in its plans for preventing this from happening again.
The next step is to keep sharing information with readers, to be available to answer additional questions, and to follow through on the promise to institute new checks.