Ten years ago, the journalism world was in upheaval. On May 1, 2003, Jayson Blair, a young reporter at The New York Times, turned in his resignation following allegations of plagiarism made a couple of days earlier. The Times began to deeply investigate Blair’s work and, May 11th, less than two weeks later, released its findings in a mammoth “Correcting the Record” piece.
Prior to the scandal, Blair’s journalism career seemed to be on the fast track. At just 27 years old, he was not only a full-time reporter at the nation’s most prestigious newspaper, but was also the lead reporter on the Beltway Sniper Shootings, possibly the biggest story at the time.
But when Blair’s career came crashing down, it took large pieces of the New York Times with it. Two senior editors at the paper resigned shortly after and The Times was suddenly fighting to regain its once-unapproachable reputation.
But 10 years later, Blair’s legacy lives on. Though Blair might have been among the first of the “celebrity plagiarists”, he was far from the last. Though Jonah Lehrer is the most obvious example of someone who followed Blair’s path, there have been countless other incidents of plagiarism, fabrication and other unethical behavior.
In fact, the problem reached such a fever pitch during the summer of 2012 that Craig Silverman at Poynter famously referred to those months as “Journalism’s Summer of Sin”.
The truth is that, though journalism did change in the wake of Jayson Blair, it didn’t learn the lessons it should have from him.
As a result, the stage is set for there to be more cases like Jayson Blair in the future, setting the stage for more costly scandals that harm the reputation of major news outlets.
This is why, as we look back on the Jayson Blair scandal, we have to not just see what happened, but also look at the mistakes that were made that opened the doors for history to repeat itself.
Why Blair Was So Damaging
The idea that such a young reporter could do so much harm to such a prestigious newspaper almost seems impossible.
However, The Times was blamed for letting Blair commit ethical misstep after ethical misstep under their nose. Though the investigation focused on the later months of Blair’s time at the paper, the truth is that he had been engaging in questionable behavior since almost day one at The Times and there was even evidence of trouble at his earlier jobs, including his editorship at his college newspaper.
The Times missed or ignored obvious warning signs that Blair was a potentially dangerous reporter, including direct warnings from his editor. In its “Correcting the Record” piece, The Times talked a great deal about the trust it put in its employees, saying that “Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles.”
But while that is certainly true, that trust is almost never blind. Banks check behind their tellers and police departments constantly monitor and track officer activity. No such checks were in place for Jayson Blair.
Both The Times and Jayson Blair, in his book on the scandal, both paint a picture of a reporter that went unchecked and was allowed to work, even promoted, despite warning signs and problems.
That’s a trend that continues largely today and one that isn’t going to improve unless newspapers, magazines and other institutions of journalism work to rectify it.
The Problem with Blind Trust
The simple truth is that the Jayson Blair scandal could have either been prevented, or at least greatly reduced, if The Times had been more proactive in dealing with such issues.
Plagiarism detection tools, for example, existed long before Blair was hired by The Times. Many of his worst misdeeds could have trivially been caught by even basic text matching.
However, that didn’t happen because The Times, like most newspapers, wasn’t actively checking reporter work for plagiarism, factual issues or other problems.
Unfortunately though, the response to the Blair scandal didn’t address these weaknesses. Though the creation of the public editor position was an important step, it’s a role that looks to the public to help identify and stop bad reporters. However, as the Jonah Lehrer scandal showed, by the time the public becomes involved, it’s often too late.
To make matters worse, even in relatively straightforward cases of plagiarism, such as the recent Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal, the public editors have often done more to hurt than to help.
The reasons that more aggressive action hasn’t happened are many. For one, the news industry has been in a period of retraction, one that’s seen massive layoffs and increased use of freelance journalists (like Jonah Lehrer). Encouraging papers to spend any extra time or money, no matter how little, on what is seen as non-essential is a tough proposition.
The other is that news organizations value the relationship with their journalists and wish to preserve it. Many journalists treat the implementation of plagiarism detection software or more robust fact-checking as a sign of mistrust and protest against it.
However, newspapers and other news outlets can not afford another Jayson Blair. For most mainstream media publications trying to compete online, their reputation is their greatest asset and is something that online-only outlets can not yet duplicate. If that is lost, then much of their future is likely lost as well.
The same as academic and scientific publishers need to get in front of the issue of plagiarism, the need is possibly even more urgent for news organizations.
The costs of doing so may be tough to bear, but the cost of not doing so is impossible to bear.
Beyond the Horizon
For newspapers and other news organizations, this issue is only going to get more urgent. The public is getting better armed and becoming more aware about these issues.
For example, Churnalism U.S., a recent project by The Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit seeking to aid in government and journalism transparency, enables readers to check articles on journalism websites for copying from questionable sources. Simply by installing a browser extension, a reader is alerted when content from questionable sources appears in an article, letting the reader make the decision if the content was used and cited in an appropriate way.
The simple truth is that readers are not going to become less savvy about these issues. As the technology becomes easier and cheaper, readers are going to get better at checking after journalists and, through the Internet, have a powerful way to share their findings with the world.
In short, where the Jayson Blair scandal was truly prophetic was in its public nature. The days of newspapers learning of a bad reporter and quietly working to correct their record are done. The Internet has made the issue of bad journalism a public one.
If you want to resolve plagiarism and other ethical issues before they stain your publication’s reputation, the time to do so is before publication, not after.
Once unethical journalism is public, it is going to stay there.
Topics: Best Practices