How to protect against journalism malpractice

In a rundown of recent cases of journalism malpractice, my colleague Craig Silverman suggests there may be warning signs of abuse in the work of young writers. The idea is that suspicious editors could look for telltale signs of future plagiarism or fabrication and intervene to avoid embarrassing full-blown scandals.

I applaud the notion. I want all editors to be en garde against untruths and fraud at every level. But I will argue here, as I've argued before, that such interventions are still too late. Here's how I would handle things.

Let's say that Craig Silverman is a new young reporter and I am his editor. As part of an orientation program, Craig will meet with me. I will discuss with him in detail our ethics code. I will give him a written list of our standards and practices, covering such difficult areas as anonymous sources.

Then I will say, "Craig, there are two journalism crimes that are near the top of the list. They are called plagiarism and fabrication. Here's the short version: Don't rip people off and don't make stuff up. If you ever feel under pressure to do either of those, just go to your editor right away. Scoops and deadlines can be missed. But stealing and lying are firing offenses."

Let's say I was the manager of a bank, and Craig was my new teller.  As part of the teller training, I would probably not say, "You know, Craig, you should not be stealing money from the till for your personal gain." Instead, I would describe responsible standards and practices for tellers and the consequences if the bottom line does not balance. Then I would turn Craig around and call attention to the camera that records all his actions and reactions. "We wouldn't hire you if we didn't think you were honest, Craig, and that camera is in place to protect you. But on occasion it has provided evidence of theft by our own employees, which we prosecute to the full extent of the law."

You don't give criminals, in any field, ethics training. You police them.

So here's what I would tell Craig, the new reporter. "We've hired you because we think you are a good and honest young reporter. But to protect all of us, we have instituted a plagiarism and fabrication detection system. At random, some of your stories will be run through plagiarism detection software. In addition, at least once a year -- more often if we have suspicions -- an editor will be assigned to check the facts, scenes, and sources in your story. In the vast majority of cases, this process proves to us that our reporters are hard-working, honest, and reliable."

This strategy of self-policing is based on a theory of justice that draws distinctions among moral truths, ethics, and standards and practices. There is some overlap, to be sure. But for me:

  1. Moral truth concerns clear areas of right and wrong, the kind of things that even young children are expected to know. No journalist requires training to know that stealing several paragraphs from another writer without attribution is wrong. Or that inventing a conversation in a story that never occurred is wrong. You don't train that away. You police it.
  2. Ethics applies when areas are gray, rather than black and white. Codes and rules and sophisticated methods of decision-making can be applied to sort out the lesser of two evils, or what happens when two good goals collide: "If I publish this, people will understand the plight of illegal immigrants, but it might get that family deported."
  3. Standards and practices often sit outside the moral and ethical realm. We know, for example, that NPR has a set of standards and practices that govern how tape can be edited for length, clarity, and content. There is an acknowledged difference, for example, between editing out distracting pauses and verbal punctuation as opposed to using technology to make three sentences, collected in three different interviews, sound like one.

I have previously compared my proposal of self-policing in journalism to random drug testing. Given their nature, journalists will argue that they are not pilots or Olympic athletes, that making them -- metaphorically -- pee in a cup is insulting, demeaning, and at odds with the trust that is required in a good editor/reporter relationship.

Such trust is important, but not as important as the public trust. Who can deny that the recent cases of journalism malpractice hurt us all?  For the good of the whole tribe, let's submit our work to random testing.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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