4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits

When it was merely a matter of self-plagiarism, some saw the coverage of Jonah Lehrer’s transgressions as an overheated case of schadenfreude.

The fact that his previous books had previously come under fire from reviewers and subject matter experts for misrepresentations and cherry picking data? Just more sour grapes.

Then, this week, he was exposed for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his book about creativity. And repeatedly lying to a journalist about it.

Early in her career in the Yale student press, Liane Membis showed signs of problems, for example requiring an unusually long correction for one story in the Yale Daily News. Another piece she wrote for The New Journal that was later picked up by The Huffington Post included suspect material.

All of this went unnoticed until she landed an internship at The Wall Street Journal this summer and was caught fabricating sources.

In May, Paresh Jha, a staff reporter with the New Canaan News in Connecticut, won two awards from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists. By June, he’d confessed to fabricating material in at least 25 articles and was fired from the paper.

His first place prize was revoked this week after an independent investigation confirmed the story included made-up sources and quotes.

Jha was allowed to keep his third place prize, as it was free of fabrication. Yet as the investigation revealed this week, the story had other problems: two names were misspelled; Jha failed to detail the circumstances under which he collected some quotes from teachers; he misrepresented some of his source material as being more relevant and authoritative than it was; he cited a Time magazine article that investigator Roy Gutterman was unable to locate; and Jha also did some sloppy paraphrasing of other news articles.

In addition to the fabricated sources, Jha’s first place entry included factual errors, misrepresentations, and confusing narrative, according to Gutterman’s report.

Finally, a photojournalist for Sun-Times Media’s suburban newspapers was fired last week for repeatedly fabricating elements of a weekly photo essay.

These young, promising journalists violated the most sacred ethical tenets of the profession.

The seriousness of these transgressions, all discovered within such a short period of time, should be enough to instigate a serious discussion about how this can happen, and how the profession could have stopped it.

Were these people destined to go awry, or were they not given corrective guidance to help set and keep them on the right path?

Important questions journalists seem loath to investigate.

Why we ignore our own problems

As David Carr wrote in his New York Times column this week, the profession isn’t interested in introspection. Even in the face of these scandals and the phone hacking outrages in Britain, many in the press are likely to decry as navel gazing attempts to dig deeper into these matters.

“The news media often fail to turn the X-ray machine on themselves because, in part, journalists assign a nobility to the profession that obscures the flaws within it,” Carr wrote. “We think of ourselves as doing the People’s work, and write off lapses in ethics and practices as potholes on the way to a Greater Truth.”

Well, some recent potholes swallowed a handful of careers and tarnished several major media organizations.

Even more importantly, when I look at these examples — again, serious breaches that all came to light over the course of a few weeks — I see a pattern. And within that pattern, there are possible strategies for prevention.

I see young journalists who showed warning signs in their work; what began as sloppy, progressed to scandalous.

There was a moment for each of them when they made the decision to cross the line, to make things up. They arrived at that line in part because they had been allowed to stray. Editors and colleagues missed or ignored the warning signs. No one raised the alarm or took them aside to work with them. In the end, these people made the decision to do what they did. But there is an element of collective failure that is important.

Warning signs

There are similarities between Jha, Lehrer, Membis and Jayson Blair. There are warning signs that suggest newsroom colleagues and leaders have a window of opportunity to nudge a young journalist onto the right path.

Feeling the pressure

Young journalists need guidance and support. When they don’t get it, and are told simply to get the story, to track down the information, to get the quote, they are pushed to the edge of the line. Once crossed, they find it hard to come back.

Here’s what Jayson Blair told Salon this week:

But I know what went through my mind the subsequent time: this idea that I can’t do it. I can’t live up to it. So just this one time again. Every time, just this one time. I’ll catch up eventually. And the more corners you cut to get work done, the more prolific people think you can be. Their expectations become higher. All the more power to the journalists who are able to do it without crossing lines.

The push to produce more content, and to work at the level of seasoned professionals, adds a new layer of pressure that was likely a factor in the plagiarism of Kendra Marr (Politico) and Elizabeth Flock (Washington Post).

Newsrooms ask for more, but offer less support. They expect performance, but devalue oversight and mentoring.

When a young colleague struggles to handle the pressure, to match the output of others, he may be tempted to find unethical ways to catch up. It’s a sign to give her more support, not to demand more.

Sloppy sourcing

A common denominator with Lehrer, Jha et al is they often mishandled the actual sources they had. Lehrer’s previous work was criticized for mischaracterizing research. Jha’s third place story was easily critiqued by Gutterman.

“I knew that [third place] piece was questionable about five minutes after reading it,” he told me. “… I mean, mistakes happen, but repeatedly over and over in the same story? That’s questionable stuff.”

In Jha’s case, a guide for parents was transformed into an authoritative study. Lehrer took research and massaged it to fit his thesis.

It only took Gutterman a few minutes to see the problems with a Jha story, so they were there for any editor to identify.

In Lehrer’s case, reviewers repeatedly voiced concerns about his sourcing and use of material.

Jayson Blair earned disconcerting corrections early in his career at the Times.

Checking how research and other sources are represented in copy is an important step to ensure a reporter is dealing with the material in a way that reflects reality. After all, at the core of fabrication is a separation from reality.

Moulding quotes

Here’s Gutterman, the SPJ investigator, detailing what Jha said about the first time he fabricated sources and quotes:

He said he went out to do one story and had trouble getting people to talk to him, so he went back and made people up. He said he never made up quotes for anybody who existed. He just made up people to fit into the story.

Lehrer, too, created quotes to make his story sing.

As with the tendency to mould source material to fit a thesis rather than dig deeper, the journalist on the precipice will start by taking real quotes and tweaking them to better fit the story.

At a certain point, it may just seem easier to invent a quote out of whole cloth, rather than bother with a real person. These journalists eventually invented people when they couldn’t find sources and information to fill in the holes and support their angle.

If a young reporter is getting complaints from real sources about the way their quotes have been massaged, that’s something to take seriously.

Perfecting examples

As I previously detailed, many of the quotes invented by Jha now jump off the page due to their perfect nature. Time and again, his stories were littered with flawless quotes that flowed elegantly into the narrative of his story.

Jonah Lehrer got to the point where he felt no qualms about putting words in Bob Dylan’s mouth. Membis littered a WSJ article with local residents expressing the exactly appropriate sentiment for her piece.

This perfection can be detected long before someone begins to make things up. It can, for example, come in the misrepresentation of source material and mangled quotes.

Above all, if a reporter struggles to deliver sources and quotes and then suddenly hits a home run when sent out to gather quotes on the street (or another situation that can be difficult to check), it’s a red flag.

The perfect anecdote, the perfect quote, the perfect stat or study. These start as manipulations of the real and can spread to the invented.

How good work can turn bad

I don’t pretend to provide a definitive list. But as time goes on we see the same patterns repeat, resulting in scandals and shame. At the heart of this surprise is the failure to see that these incidents are not anomalies.

To overlook failures of attribution, mangled quotes, cherry picked or misrepresented sources is to blindly ignore warning signs of deeper problems.

I’m disinclined to heed his advice about anything else, but on this topic Jayson Blair carries some weight, and the benefit of experience and a degree of self-analysis.

“I think fundamentally because of this trust in each other, our colleagues and our friends, we’re very slow to realize that any of us, under the right pressure, is capable of anything,” Blair said.

It’s an uncomfortable but necessary truth: Well-meaning colleagues can make bad decisions.

Are we willing and prepared to spot the warning signs?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.dorso Mike D’Orso

    There’s the rub. The Richard Prestons of the world, whose “science” stories/books are not only accurate but also accessible, are few and far between. Very few scientists can write in any way but academically, certainly not to the highest general-audience standards of, say, The New Yorker. And very few journalists have the wherewithal to do the ground-pounding research and reporting it takes to first absorb and understand the most complex cutting-edge scientific material, and then turn around and share it in a compelling way without compromising, cutting corners or dumbing it down.

    That said, another up-and-coming generation of “young” talent with the ability and integrity to carry the torch passed down from the John McPhees and Richard Prestons of the world is out there. The cream will continue to rise to the top, as it always has, and the chickens will always, sooner or later, come home to roost for the cheaters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.dorso Mike D’Orso

    Right on, brother.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

     Thanks for offering to look. Email sent.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Sure you do. You have your reporting and the Internet. Email specifics and we’ll see if we can help. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online (jmoos@poynter.org)

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I have seen a writer that was exhibiting those sorts of issues, in a serial manner. I read this author’s most recent book and found numerous issues. Then went back to see other work and found people calling out the exact same pattern there as well. Over and over.

    But I contacted the publisher with my concerns (what else is a reader to do for a book?). What the publisher replied to me:

    “Thank you for contacting [publisher], we appreciate your feedback and continued
    interest in our publications.

    While our editors make every effort to
    insure the accuracy of the information in our publications, occasionally an
    error will slip through. If you feel that some of the information in one of our
    publications is incorrect, we suggest that you contact the author so that it can
    be corrected in future releases if necessary. Our authors may be contacted by
    mail using the following address format: [author's contact info provided via the publicity team]”

    I’m to take this to the author? Yeah, we’ve seen how that goes with Lehrer, Daisey, and the rest. That’ll work. And as someone who didn’t hire this author I have absolutely no mechanism to do anything about it.

  • Anonymous

    This was happening in my newsroom 25 years ago. There were a couple reporters that simply made things up. They were the editors’ darlings and their work was regularly entered in competitions. It was embarrassing to the honest, hardworking reporters. Most of us eventually left the business.

  • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

    I gotta argue with you on two of these, Joe. For one, age isn’t a real indicator of potential problems. I have a bad feeling a lot of journalists over 30 are caught in the same rushed news cycles and pressure – and make the same mistakes. They just haven’t been caught.

    As for online vs. print – how is that relevant? In 2012, good, well-researched and reported news is published online every day – and sloppy, unsourced work makes it to print. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/bdstrick9 Bran Strickland

    With all due respect, I don’t think this is a young problem. It’s a problem of lazy.

    Mitch Albom had his Final Four faux pas. Mitch ain’t young. 
    Lynn Hoppes’ history of copy-pasting is starting to come out, too. He’s no spring chicken. 

    Sadly, there’s plenty of it going around. It’s just a combination of lazy and ego. 

  • http://twitter.com/aperobot aperobot

    To hell with Lehrer and people like him. They are evil, and they are destroying the industry. You can’t underestimate what this lying, cowardly shit does to honest journalists.

    First, you have the day-to-day reality of a job as a reporter. It’s very hard to do the job well. You get to elbow your way into interviews, transcribe hour-long interviews, possibly break a few deadlines in the interest of doing a good job, fight with your editor, and then, if you’re lucky, publish a story that’s about 75% true to your work. If it’s a good story, maybe it’ll get promoted online for an hour or two.

    If you actually have respect for the job, the industry, and the process, you’re at a disadvantage. In the meantime, you have people like Lehrer winning awards, selling books, and being hailed by the executive level as an example of being a “good journalist.” 

    Welcome to a constant cycle of being measured against a baseball player taking steroids. Bonds and McGwire were cheaters. Both of them hit 70+ home runs in a season. No one remembers or cares about honest players who did a great job (without cheating) during their “record” seasons. Instead, you’re never getting a promotion or a raise, because you have enough respect for your job to not make shit up. Meanwhile, Lehrer will get attention and opinion columns written about him for another month.

    After that dies down, you’re greeted with a public who’s read about Lehrer, Glass, Blair, and a bunch of other “journalists” for a while. You will always have the cloud of doubt hanging over your work, because other people cared more about being famous than they did about doing their jobs. You’ll wonder why you even bother anymore.

    Maybe you’ll last another year or so in the industry. Maybe your soul and your naive goal of “saving journalism” will last longer than that. 
    .
    Honestly, don’t waste your time. Lehrer et. al. fucked up. You get to pay while they move on to lucrative book deals.

  • http://twitter.com/NaomiPierce Naomi Pierce

    This is a shame, but no surprise as standards seem to have eroded across the board. Mike Barnicle comes to mind – he resigned from the Boston Globe in 1998 amidst credible allegations of fabrication and plagiarism but has re-invented himself as a commentator on MSNBC. 

    Better to have a zero-tolerance policy such as that of my college newspaper – which repeatedly refused a student the privilege of re-applying for a staff position after that person had plagiarized a book review from that month’s New Republic. One strike and you’re out. It’s like we tell our kids: if you get caught in a lie, you will never be trusted again.

  • Tracie Powell

    Plus the editor(s) would likely not understand what the actual neuroscientist would write, nor the stories said scientist would pitch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628233825 Trevor Butterworth

    A very well executed analysis. I’m especially glad to see the issue of Lehrer’s loosey-goosey approach to neuroscience mentioned. So much of the media criticism about his work simply elides the fact that many within the actual scientific field (and remember, Lehrer simply has an undergraduate major) were highly critical of his reporting and interpretation of the research. The question is, why, if editors found this subject so relevant for their readers, didn’t they hire an actual neuroscientist to write about neuroscience? I suspect the answer is simple: it just wouldn’t be that entertaining. I

  • http://twitter.com/bookofjoe bookofjoe

    Here are three more to make seven. 1. Publishing online v in print; 2. Taking full credit v not sharing/giving credit; 3. Being under 30.

  • Anonymous

    When I was at a Poynter seminar a few years back (“Critical Tools for the Nontraditional Journalist”), Kelly McBride had us do a simple exercise: Brainstorm words that represent what you and your work stand for. Pick out the top 5 and share them with your peers. Almost all of us had written Integrity, or one of its affiliate words: Honesty, Transparency, Rigor.

    I don’t doubt that at some point, all of the fabricators mentioned in this story saw themselves as writers of integrity, but their judgment was muddied by a combination of ambition, pressure and fear. Jayson Blair is right; under the right kind of pressure, most of us are capable of doing bad stuff. Actively thinking about your own personal values and reminding yourself of them every day acts as a sort of counterpressure. I think I’m going to finally take Kelly’s advice and tack my “values list” above my workspace.

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  • Anonymous

    This is a thoughtful analysis, but I see it in a slightly different way.

    What America should do is change the nature of college admissions so as to confront systemic problems such as poor attention to detail, shaky grasp of language, and weak presentation of evidence.

    The most important change that America could make would be to have formal admissions curricula, and to dump off the obsolete practices that guarantee incoherence.

    Precise focus on longterm text projects would be essential. Shakespeare should be taught so as to extract value from the high quality of introductory and advanced texts. For example, the Oxford school “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” and “Othello” for grades 9 and 10, and the New Cambridge Shakespeare “Macbeth,” the Arden “Hamlet,” and the Oxford World’s Classics “Othello” for grades 11 and 12.

    The American school treadmill takes up and drops off texts so that students do not develop depth in reading and analysis. In “Macbeth,” we note how cleverly Shakespeare employs repeated exposition of material, including projection and recapitulation. In Act 5, Lady Macbeth’s memories of Duncan’s murder are hypnotic because of how the act has been embedded in our consciousness by the enactment of its aftermath, and because of Macbeth’s depiction: “Here lay Duncan / His silver skin laced with his golden blood.”

    Shakespeare understood “recursion” in presenting information. If you would rather, he projected a scene, enacted it, and recapitulated it so that it was fixed in our memory. He grasped cognition far better than Lehrer.

    By contrast, American education in schools and colleges is weakly Fordist. The relentless progression of half-baked presentation of one text after another produces rat-maze students. Even if they can run the maze, they have virtually no trained intellect. Therefore, their work takes on neurotic features, such as fabrication. This is systemic to a very large degree.

    Romney, the Harvard MBA rhetorician, fell into an obvious thesis trap in his ruminations on culture as the determinant of economic performance. Students are heavily predisposed by American school rhetoric to see reality in terms of the factitious thesis statement. This is a serious pathology. The way to deal with it is to get rid of American school rhetoric. Decimate it. Destroy it. It is a virus.

    Canadian teachers have a silly little thing about telling students to write essays in the present. Surely harmless nonsense. But in fact there is a cost to all such trivial practices. You end up with students who can’t write, and then have to buy their admissions essays.

    Partially, cheating is a downstream effect of system habits that can be changed. Part of it, of course, is due to human perversity, which seems to be a deeper factor than I once thought.

    But there is no excuse for the programmed, obtuse, and obsolete college admissions practices in America.

    If you want to get in, make a minute study of “The Turn of the Screw,” “Encounters With the Archdruid,” and “The Executioner’s Song.” There should be no more tests without curricula. No multiple choice. Present your evidence with precision.

    I sometimes get caught up in the strange world of GMAT English. It is no wonder students are struggling with English downstream. Could you learn how to write by studying a GMAT manual?

    The most elementary changes that need to be made seemingly cannot now be made because the landscape is so filled with GMAT-style trash. Journalists should be interested in the idea of sharpening their skills through study of a powerful American literary grammar, with clause cluster analysis, for example. Academics can’t do it because they are trapped in the triviality of second-rate systems.

    The career and personal rewards system.

    The opportunity costs of such a lack of creativity are severe.