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Society of Professional Journalists
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Globe and New Republic editors admit oversight failures in long-running cases of fictitious reporting
By JONATHAN MILLER,
SENIOR WRITER, WORLD VISION
SEATTLE -- If Charles Lane had to choose between hiring a smart but unethical journalist and a journalist with integrity, he said his choice would be easy: He would hire the one with integrity.
Unfortunately, Lane, who is editor of The New Republic magazine, had a staff writer named Stephen Glass who he said "exploited" a relationship of trust. As a result, The New Republic printed 27 partially or completely fabricated stories because "editors failed" to fully verify Glass' reporting. Glass was fired last spring.
Lane, a panelist at a discussion on ethics hosted by SPJ, said he disagrees with the assertion that Glass' work is symptomatic of a trend in fake stories. Instead, the fictitious articles were the work of "one man" whose sensationalism was rewarded with offers of book contracts and other freelance assignments from magazines.
Meanwhile, the forced resignations last summer of two newspaper columnists from The Boston Globe became inevitable after the discovery of plagiarism and fictitious reporting, said assistant managing editor Walter Robinson. He quipped that these incidents were evidence that "lightning can strike twice."
Lane and Robinson were among a group of panelists who spoke on Nov. 20 on the topic of fictitious reporting. The discussion, which drew an audience of more than 80 people, took place in the Congress Room at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle. The event was televised on TVW, a local cable network.
Robinson said the Globe had previously warned staff columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle about the use of "composite" characters in their work. They were asked to submit the phone numbers of people mentioned in future columns. However, enforcement of this policy lapsed after verification duty was handed off to a busy managing editor, Robinson said.
Last summer, Robinson again caught Smith using a composite character, and she was asked to resign. A short time later, the Globe temporarily suspended Barnicle for a column that included, without attribution, jokes from a book by comedian George Carlin. The Globe subsequently asked him to resign after it found that Barnicle had written a fake story about two cancer victims.
The Globe originally put the verification system in place for the two columnists because Robinson said fake reporting was a "capital offense" and the paper didn't want to dismiss talented writers without conclusive proof. When asked why the Globe chose to ask Barnicle and Smith to resign rather than fire them, Robinson said this was because the paper wanted to preserve severance pay and other post-employment benefits for the two writers.
The question of why some journalists lie may go deeper than a desire for personal glory, said panelist Frank Wetzel, former ombudsman at The Seattle Times. Wetzel cited such factors as the push for profitability in an increasingly competitive media environment and a rising concentration of media ownership in some markets. As a result, the news staff has shrunk at many organizations and there is less time to focus on proper editing of stories.
Panelist Cliff Rowe, professor of communications at Pacific Lutheran University, said recent instances of fictitious reporting at organizations such as Time magazine, CNN, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Boston Globe and The New Republic have provided fresh material for his journalism ethics class. However, he does not believe that young journalists should shy away from using the descriptive techniques of fiction to tell a good story -- as long as they stick to the facts.
The taped discussion was moderated by PBS news correspondent Jim Compton, and included an opportunity for audience questions. To order a videotape of the event, contact Lorri Avery at TVW at (360) 586-5555, and ask for a tape of Event Number 199811-026. The charge for the tape is $35, plus taxes, shipping and handling.
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Copyright 2003, Western Washington Society of Professional Journalists