Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists

Jayson Blair. Stephen Glass. Now Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria.

The first two were drummed out of the journalism corps, and probably rightly so given their obscene crimes against truth and ethics. Lehrer will remain on contract with “Wired” magazine, Ben Smith reported Wednesday morning.

For Zakaria, as of now it appears he and his column/show will only be temporarily suspended from The Washington Post, TIME and CNN (as Craig Silverman notes, pending internal review, whatever that means).

There’ll be plenty of back-and-forth in comments sections and blog posts in the media-watching world about not only what level of ethical breaches Lehrer and Zakaria committed, but also what their fates should be — no matter what their employers eventually decide.

But on the whole, it’s doubtful many people will argue this for Lehrer, Glass, Blair, Zakaria and all the plagiarists/fabricators/liars who’ll inevitably follow: They should stay in journalism.

That’s right. Ready your throwing arms and rotten tomatoes: We the “journalism community” should facilitate and encourage it.

This is not to say their crimes are instantly forgivable, nor that we should let them wash their hands of such misdeeds like some journalistic Pontius Pilates. They deserve every bit of scrutiny, scorn, skepticism and chastisement they’ve brought on themselves.

However, it’s time for a little reality check.

First, plagiarism, deception, quote invention, etc. are facts of life when fallible humans occupy journalism (and any) jobs. No amount of ethics training at the collegiate or professional level will change that. Some people will always and unfortunately break the rules.

Second, permanent blackballing from the industry is not an effective deterrent. Many college students flunk classes or are expelled over similar transgressions in any class — journalism or otherwise. But academic dishonesty and plagiarizing the freshman history paper will always be a part of higher education.

In the past few months, as numerous instances of plagiarism and related offenses have populated the likes of Poynter’s and Romenesko’s (and many other) sites, the questions keep coming up: How does this happen? What’s wrong with journalists?

Indeed, you’ll hear many reasons: The pressure, the need to produce content so rapidly in a digital world, the temporary lapse in judgment , the pressures of home and family life, personal struggles with X or Y substance, etc.

Those are real and perhaps even mildly understandable in some ways.

But also consider another: Those who have committed such offenses have never gained an appreciation for what journalism really is and what many journalists really do.

(I shudder at the notion that this argument would try to box in someone to a strict definition of “a journalist,” something I and my employer — SPJ — are generally loathe to do.)

Zakaria, Lehrer, Glass and Blair all behaved differently. But look from where they fell: CNN/TIME, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times — not the small-town daily or small-market TV station for which many (most?) journalists work.

This isn’t to say journalists at non-national, smaller outlets never plagiarize or fabricate. Of course they do, unfortunately. (Recent example: Paresh Jha.) Actually, perhaps more so, since hiding such misdeeds could be perceived as easier in such environments.

And there’s the crux of this admittedly risky proposal:

Perhaps we give plagiarists, fabricators and the like a second chance. A rehabilitative probation of sorts, a kind of closely monitored work release program for non-violent offenders.

A rough plan

Realistically, this wouldn’t work in all instances. And by no means are all journalistic offenses of ethics worth rehabilitating. To continue the penal example: Sometimes a journalism death penalty or life without parole is indeed the only option.

But imagine this scenario for the run-of-the-mill plagiarist or quote fabricator:

  1. The offender’s body of work is completely reviewed by his or her employer.
  2. Employers work with journalism educators and representatives from journalism organizations/associations knowledgeable about ethics to discuss a course of action that includes a program of rehabilitation, termination or suggested blackballing.
  3. If rehabilitation is deemed the appropriate route, the employer works with journalism organizations/associations to come up with a sensible work plan for the offender that includes mandatory classes in ethics training, time management, diversity and other useful skills.
  4. The offender is assigned a mentor/monitor who counsels the offender on journalism research and reporting methods and acts as a liaison to the employer and journalism association. The mentor will also help editors and managers at the offender’s place of employment review future work output.
  5. With the mentor/monitor, the offender talks to journalism students and meets with other journalists at training conferences to discuss his or her actions and talk about what he or she has learned throughout the process.
  6. Employers, journalism associations and mentors evaluate the offender’s progress and determine if he or she is now acting in an ethical manner.
  7. Journalism organizations and associations (e.g. Poynter, ASNE, SPJ, etc.) and college programs publicly discuss the progress (or lack thereof) and use the case and other cases as a teaching point.

I’d even offer to dedicate space in Quill magazine and online to a kind of case study about the offender, and give space directly to him or her to talk about the experience. I don’t want to speak for other publications and websites, but perhaps CJR and AJR would too?

Back to reality

This idea is a far-off notion. And even if viable, it has kinks, the kind you are most welcome and encouraged to point out and correct.

However, it’s obvious the mostly one strike and you’re out policy isn’t an effective solution or deterrent. Making an example of others by banishing them to the island of misfit former journalists doesn’t fix anything, other than the immediate appearance of how a news outlet handles such instances of dishonesty.

And, yes, even with a rehabilitative system in place, other offenders will do their dirty deeds. (Craig Silverman and Kelly McBride explain how to handle allegations when they arise.)

But there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that plagiarists and fabricators are actually being taught to do journalism right and ethically, not off writing retrospective books and having movies made about them.

Scott Leadingham is SPJ’s director of education and editor of Quill magazine. Reach him at sleadingham@spj.org or interact on Twitter @scottleadingham.

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  • 14 The Claw

    You must admit that one might be excused for supposing that Leadingham is a pseudonym, but I did not make that assumption. As you so drolly observe: My real name is not Claw. I readily confess. To respond to your gracious riposte, my comment hardly can be said to have a lede. It isn’t a news story. It isn’t journalism. I posed a hypothetical question with the aim of framing my observations in the most basic attention-getting terms. I am guilty of senationalism I guess. My only point is that plagiarsm is unforgiveable. To me – it must be one and done! It’s only my opinion, but I feel very strongly about it. How can it be defended or excused (even with the most elaborate rehabilitation program)? Isn’t the writer forever suspect and hence his publisher is forever compromised?

  • http://twitter.com/scottleadingham Scott Leadingham

    Hello, Mr./Ms. The Claw (is that Irish?).
    Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. To answer the unfounded, unsourced, unfair, inaccurate, completely baseless assertion in your lede – that I have some skeleton in my closet that has me covering my tracks by proposing this idea – sorry, but that’s not the case.
    Again, thanks.
    Best,
    Scott Leadingham (my real name)

  • 14 The Claw

    Bull crap! What skeleton in the writer’s closet has him going soft on the cardinal sin of journalism? Just wondering.
    If the end result of committing plagiarism is losing the right to practice as a bonafide professional journalist (yes they still exist) it ought to act as a deterrent. All this brave new world of contemporary e-reporting and new form journalism should not exonerate anyone. Standards are what make the profession a profession.

  • Bryan M.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that these people were put in the “big leagues” without spending time covering county government in Utah.

  • Bryan M.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that these people were put in the “big leagues” without spending time covering county government in Utah.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1084733830 Kate Andrews

    Scott, I was mainly reacting to the lead, although you’re right, you do distinguish between Blair and Glass and other, more mundane offenders. Newsrooms could employ your suggestions *before* an incident happens. First-time journalists (whether they just graduated from college or moved from a different profession) don’t necessarily know all the rules, and publications may have slightly different standards instead of a one-size-fits-all rulebook. Let’s have the ethics classes and mentorships so no one offends out of ignorance. When plagiarists commit their offenses, then we know they’re doing it knowingly. And I suggest that publications keep tabs on how many professional commitments outside the primary job their writers are taking on — Lehrer and Zakaria seem spread awfully thin. I’m an editor, by the way.

  • Billy Budd

    I agree, Kate. A lot of good journalists get pushed out of the profession, and you’re left wondering why someone as consistently unoriginal as Zakaria sticks around. But I once caught a plagiarist — a longtime freelancer for the publication — and I simply suspended him. I also kept his secret and said he should tell people who asked that he was working on another project. Perhaps that was wrong. Should it have been done in public? I couldn’t see what would be gained by hurting him, and, yes, I believe he was rehabilitated. I can live with it.

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t thinking of just choosing some random paper and using that as outer Siberia. My thought was that most papers today are owned by chains, and it would be a matter of transferring someone to one of the smaller papers in the chain, sort of the way baseball teams move players between the farm clubs and the majors. It could be mutually beneficial, as the smaller paper gets a higher-profile staff member while the probationer gains the experience of shoe-leather journalism.

  • http://twitter.com/scottleadingham Scott Leadingham

    Hi, Don.
    It’s funny you mention that. In my first draft or when I was thinking about this several weeks ago (when Lehrer’s fake Bob Dylan quotes came to light), I proposed that very thing. I couldn’t find a good way to work in that point in the final version without sounding as if it were degrading to the “smaller” outlet, as if going off to cover county government in Utah (for example) is some sort of horrible punishment. I don’t believe that at all. But I didn’t want to offend anyone by suggesting that going to a smaller market or area is somehow punishment (I say this as someone who grew up in a very small town … where the nearest stoplight was 60 miles away). But I see the point, especially that in certain smaller settings, one may be able to gain a more in-depth understanding of how beat or shoe-leather reporting is really done. Thanks for reading!

  • Anonymous

    Scott,
    Since you mentioned that these cases happened at high-profile outlets, could part of the rehabilitation project be to assign the offender to a smaller news outlet during his/her probation as a way of further steeping them in the rules of the profession?

  • http://twitter.com/scottleadingham Scott Leadingham

    Hi, Kate. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. Yes, I agree that not all actions of plagiarism/fabulism/lying/unethical behavior are created equal. And I tried to make that clear in the column. I wasn’t necessarily trying to say those four particular examples are equal, or that they should all be “rehabilitated.” As I wrote, some “sins” are probably punishable by the journalism death sentence. I was trying more to speak in generalities about a proposed way to “rehabilitate” (and educate) offenders. It may very well be that in the specific cases of Blair or Glass or Lehrer or anyone else, the punishment should be excommunication. I wanted more to bring up the idea that excommunication as a blanket policy doesn’t work as a deterrent. But thanks for reading and engaging the discussion.

  • Nathanael Johnson

    I like the mentor idea. What about just having a safe conversation in the newsroom where everyone comes clean about the grey areas they’ve touched and they hash it out together. Also your idea of assigning a reporter to review the past body of work is a good one, and could actually make a really interesting story for the employer to print.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=652726450 Bernard McCoy

    practitioner’s (sp) doh!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=652726450 Bernard McCoy

    Kudos for the thought provoking article. Each plagiarism case has its own unique circumstances that should be weighed into any decision on the fate of the guilty. Plagiarism may be a product of dishonesty (intentional), carelessness (unintentional) or both. To banish all found guilty of plagiarism, I believe, sends a message that education and rehabilitation are useless, that positive change is impossible. In some cases it may be this way. In other plagiarism cases your proposed guidelines offer the guilty an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. In doing so plagiarists may come away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the important roles proper attribution and accuracy play; In journalism and in the practitioners credibility.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1084733830 Kate Andrews

    I disagree with the premise here, since there are a lot of journalists who would be happy to have plagiarists’ jobs and would do their work honestly. But my main complaint here is that it’s not fair to lump Lehrer and Zakaria in with Blair and Glass — at least with the information we have now. Publications are still investigating Zakaria and Lehrer. Also, Glass is set apart from most plagiarists (the kind that “accidentally” cut and paste words from another story into their own article) by the fact that he made up people and entire scenes. Blair pretended to go places he never went, and he also made up source material. I think there’s a big difference.