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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