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September 28, 2006

The press & public trust: Looking at the NYT and Washington Post fiascos

In 1980, the Washington Post ran the compelling story “Jimmy’s World” about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The story won a Pulitzer Prize for reporter Janet Cooke.

The trouble was, Cooke fabricated the story.

Some 23 years later, The New York Times writer Jayson Blair, after four years of reporting that included plagiarism, phantom sources and downright lies, was exposed as a charlatan.

In light of the fallout for journalism’s reputation that the Cooke case caused, how could such a similar, perhaps more egregious, breach of ethics two decades later have been allowed to happen?

That was the theme that two Duquesne University faculty members tackled in presenting a synopsis of their award-winning paper, “What Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke Say About the Press and the Erosion of Public Trust.”

The paper, written by assistant professor Margaret Patterson and instructor Steve Urbanski, received the 2006 Johnson Award for the Best Paper in Ethics and Accountability in the Public Sector from the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership, part of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).

The speakers’ Sept. 20 discussion was co-sponsored by the Johnson Institute and Pitt’s School of Information Sciences.

Kevin Kearns, GSPIA associate professor and director of the Johnson Institute, described the winning paper as “an eloquent diagnosis of these two controversies, focusing not only on individual ethics and behavior but on organizational theory and the role that organizational culture played in creating an environment where individual abuse was not only tolerated but flourished.”

In examining the cases, Patterson said, “Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke aren’t really interesting from an ethical standpoint in and of themselves. We looked at them as bookends, with 23 years between them.”

Of course, the two are not the only malefactors of journalistic ethics, she said, but they made a good comparison since both were young, ambitious reporters who worked for publications similar in size and national reputation.

“What interested us was what about their organizations allowed these festering liars to take hold over a long period of time — in the case of Jayson Blair, over four years. We decided we must be looking at blind spots in the newsroom culture.”

To investigate that culture, the authors applied a simple technique, one familiar to investigative reporters: “If you’re going to look at an organization or an agency, look at its mission, either its stated or commonly understood mission, what it’s supposed to be doing, and then later compare what it is doing against that mission,” Patterson said.

For instance, if a newspaper’s mission includes a commitment to truth, as most newspapers, including the Post and The Times, do, that commitment can become shrouded by a number of factors including career ambitions, competition among colleagues for story placement and the thrill of getting a “scoop,” she said.

The authors compared the Post’s and Times’s newsroom organizations to best practices proposed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“We looked particularly at three of those: that journalism’s first obligation is the truth; that its first loyalty is to the public, and that, ethically, journalism is a discipline of verification,” Patterson said.

Journalists are measured by fidelity to the story and to truth, and public service should be the central metaphor of a newspaper, she maintained. “But if that is not made clear it can become like elevator music in the background, where after a while, you don’t hear it anymore.”

Among the factors the two newsrooms had in common were the unwillingness of fellow reporters to pass along warnings when they saw troubling behavior by a colleague. Reporters who took such action might be perceived as jealous or as trying to damage a colleague’s career to get ahead themselves, Patterson said.

“In both cases the organization had what we called a star system, where reporters struggled to outshine one another,” she said. There was creative tension fostered by editors pushing reporters to write everything with the front page in mind, no matter how mundane the subject, she said.

Both papers also were lax about checking anonymous sources, according to Patterson. “The editor should always be aware of who these secret sources are. Yet The Times had no written policy on anonymous sources while Jayson Blair was working there. And no one asked, for example, about the five unnamed law enforcement officials that Blair quoted in a front page story,” all of whom were fabricated, she said.

The possibility also existed that editors were willing to turn a blind eye on fabrication and plagiarism in favor of paper sales and beating the competition, she added.

Symptomatic of the lax ethical culture, she said, was that the Washington Post failed even to do a background check on Cooke when she was hired. Cooke had lied on her resume about attending Vassar, something that was discovered only after she won the Pulitzer and a reporter asked for comment from Vassar.

“But most disturbing in Blair’s case is that numerous sources knew that Blair had made up quotes and didn’t say anything about it,” Patterson said.

For example, Blair had done a story on the family of kidnapped Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch of West Virginia. “Blair described the view from her front porch as looking out over fields of tobacco, which wasn’t true,” Patterson said. “But the Lynch family dismissed Blair’s reporting, because they thought it was to be expected. The Times never got calls from sources who knew about these fabrications. Some thought journalists wouldn’t care; others thought embellishment is accepted in journalism. While we might all agree that a free press is part of our democracy, we might also agree that public appreciation for it is slipping.”

Urbanski elaborated on several of Patterson’s points in his presentation. The authors had looked at the two newspapers’ mission definitions, values, principles and loyalties. “We looked at what is it about the organization that allowed these abuses,” he said. “Based on the newspapers’ own account of what happened in these two cases, the decision-makers involved were blinded by lesser values, such as beating the competition, looking good or winning awards, which led to a deviation from the guiding principle of public trust.”

Both papers shared a common classical hierarchical structure, had lots of rules and regulations and routinely had a high number of decisions to make in their operations, Urbanski said.

“Another similarity was that both of these newspapers were in the process of shifting their overall mission. The Post in the late ’70s and early ’80s was in the midst of a push for diversity hiring, and The New York Times in the late ’90s was moving toward a more magazine-type of writing,” he said.

Research in organizational communication indicates that a certain amount of chaos or instability follows during mission transitions, Urbanski noted. “We think this is where some ‘holes’ opened up where people like Blair and Cooke might have slipped through the cracks. And the star system pushed reporters away from public trust to their own egoistic hunger, wanting to get on the front page to advance their own careers.”

Other research has identified a phenomenon in organizational culture called “a community of believers,” he said. “You just can’t believe that someone sitting across from you is capable of such abuses.”

So, what can be done?

“Blaming the individual is a waste of time. Obviously, these were two people who shouldn’t have done this. It’s harder to look at the organizations themselves,” Urbanski said.

“We point to three things: Each news organization should do much more to advance what its news values and policies are; they must make those values clear to all employees, and, once defined and made clear, they should then be made clear to their audience,” Urbanski said. “It’s not enough to sit in a board room, agree on your values and hang them up on a wall. You have to first articulate them to your employees and then broaden the scope and articulate them to your audience. That’s important in any business setting but it’s particularly important when you’re trying to earn the public’s trust.”

Another danger to newspaper ethics is the shift, sometimes subtle, toward a market-based industry where editorial opinions, which often reflect the biases of a paper’s corporate owners, creep into ordinary news reporting, and public trust becomes less important than it was or should be, he said.

“We’re starting to sense this movement, that the marketplace metaphor is growing. It’s wedged very deeply in the American mind and has nudged aside better metaphors like earning public trust,” Urbanski said.

“Finally, we feel that public trust isn’t just a product. It isn’t something a news organization can sell to the public. It has to be earned, and it’s a two-way street. It has to involve commitment. You can’t just tell the public this is what we represent; you’ve got to live it. We argue that abandoning that public trust threatens the very notion of democracy itself, which includes a free press. If that trust is eroding, can democracy be far behind?”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 3

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