The public’s trust in journalists had been steadily slipping even before New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s unveiling as a plagiarist in 2003. While some of that trust has been recovered, journalists still face a wary audience.
At the Online News Association convention in Atlanta on Thursday, a room of journalists and educators brainstormed ideas to rebuild reader confidence and reinvent story-checking to minimize if not prevent other episodes of journalism deception.
A sneak peek of Samantha Grant’s documentary, “A FRAGILE TRUST: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at The New York Times,” scheduled to air on PBS in spring, set the stage for the discussion.
In the documentary, Blair recalls the events that led to his undoing, beginning with his copying from a story in the San Antonio Express-News.
“I lied and I lied and I lied,” Blair said. “They were lies with details.”
Blair describes how the culture of speed turned more intense at The New York Times after the appointment of Executive Editor Howell Raines, who was charged with accelerating the newspaper’s content online and on other platforms.
In remarks prepared for the ONA session, Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute faculty member and media ethicist, said, post-Blair, journalists continued to lose one to two points in credibility polls each year.
“We are now down to low 20s, in terms of the number of people who find journalists credible,” she noted. Lately, however, the numbers have leveled off and have climbed a point or two. “Will we ever reverse the trend? If we do, it will be a very slow reversal.”
Grant said she hopes the Blair affair and other such scandals are unique but asked the session audience to join her in thinking up tools that could solve the problems journalists face in checking facts and addressing ethical issues that arise daily.
Some of the ideas that came out of audience breakout groups covering such topics as ethics in a digital age and increasing transparency included:
• Create apps that can help journalists check their work more efficiently.
• Develop a real-time support network of journalists to help reporters seek help with ethical dilemmas.
• Address the question of what is plagiarism in an age of aggregation and curation.
The discussion will continue at an afternoon session that marks the launch of ONA’s Ethics and Standards Forum headed by Associated Press standards Editor Thomas Kent.
Related: Jayson Blair ‘probably won’t watch’ documentary about him | Jayson Blair: ‘I’ve matured’ since resigning from New York Times 10 years ago today | Jayson Blair on the first time he plagiarized: ‘I can’t believe no one caught that’