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His first place prize was revoked this week after an independent investigation confirmed the story included made-up sources and quotes.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

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


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