Time for Journalists to Hold Their Own Accountable

It’s been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for journalism.

Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley are bookends. And in between them are the cases of plagiarism or fabrication at the Chicago Tribune, the Macon Telegraph, and the Sedalia Democrat. The collegiate press has had an even tougher year. Student journalists at Kansas University, Iowa State, Villanova University, Oklahoma University and Clemson University have been exposed as plagiarists.

Last week, a New York Times article said Romenesko reads more like a journalism crime blotter than a gossip page.

If you’re a parent, you know I stole, or rather, repurposed the terrible-horrible phrase from Alexander and the Terrible Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day, which is a children’s picture book, turned musical. You can listen to it online here.

In the book, Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, then proceeds through a cruddy day. He “draws” an invisible castle, but his teacher is not impressed. He punches his brother for calling him a “crybaby.” He makes a mess at his father’s office. “I think I’ll move to Australia!” Alexander says throughout the story.

It’s been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year and I want to move to Australia. I’m tired of having people on airplanes or other parents ask me what I think about Jayson What’s-His-Name or if I heard about that guy from USA Today?

I’m waiting for journalists to apply the same level of scrutiny to themselves that they apply to other industries. At what point do we declare a systemic failure and begin looking for the weak links in a profession that is critical to the survival of democracy? When do we stop treating the revelations as unrelated episodes, instead of symptoms of a larger cancer?

The recent Project for Excellence in Journalism report is a good first step. The State of the News Media 2004 takes a long hard look at the state of American journalism. The authors point out eight major trends and detail the forces affecting the news, including changing technology, pressure on profit margins, and convergence. It’s available online for anyone to see, and everyone should see this report. But even this massive effort does little to explain why so many journalists have been exposed as liars and thieves. And it doesn’t carry the weight of a news story.

When journalists think something is important, we put it on the air, or in the paper. Except for the stories written by the NY Times and USA Today exposing their own failings, the reporting on our own scandals has been episodic, not investigative.

It’s taken a lot less for us to sound the alarms when it comes to other cultures or industries. By the time Arthur Andersen collapsed in the wake of the Enron scandal, journalists were doing everything they could to reveal corporate culture to the masses. Reporters profiled the personality types that become CEOs, they interviewed people who had left corporate culture in disgust or disillusionment, they visited the local MBA courses asking about the ethics curriculum.

When The Boston Globe exposed the culpability of clergy abuse at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, journalists everywhere took a magnifying glass to the faith, asking about seminaries, admittance procedures, and oversight of priests.

We are still looking at Jayson and Jack and all the other incidents as if they have nothing to do with one another. Reporters aren’t poring over the J-school curriculum, asking if it could be taught differently. No one is writing page one Sunday stories about the type of personality that goes into journalism and the accountability measures that should keep journalists honest.

Granted, journalism is a hard profession to pin down. The lack of universal standards or licensing makes it tough to measure performance, and even more difficult to conduct a thorough assessment. But it doesn’t make it impossible.

Our inhibition about becoming part of news can stand in the way of doing the work we need to do. We have been trained to stay out of the story. We have been taught to keep our distance. Our instinct to look outward is preventing us from doing the self-examination necessary to move forward.

Ultimately a check of our systems will reveal more than just self-knowledge. It will serve the public in the same way journalism on the Catholic Church or big business has served the public. We can give people the information they need to influence the forces that affect their lives. If we cover journalism the way we cover education or health care, we will fulfill one our fundamental principles. We will hold the powerful accountable. 

CORRECTION: The Des Moines Register ended its relationship with a freelancer because of a conflict of interest, not because of a case of fabrication or plagiarism as originally reported.

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