Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Another reporter fired for faking quotes.

Media: This time from the Bakerfield Californian.

MIKE JENNER, Executive Editor: For more than two years the journalism world has been rocked by revelations that reporters at some of the nation's most respected newspapers had plagiarized other publications, "lifted" quotes or facts from other published stories without proper attribution, and even quoted from sources that could not be found. Such transgressions are poison to a profession based on the values of accuracy and truth. I shook my head at each of these foolish acts that ruined the careers of the perpetrators and damaged the credibility of the organizations they represented. I said to myself, "It can't happen here." I was naive. And I was wrong. On Sunday's front page, The Californian published a story that committed all of these cardinal journalistic sins.
Let the drama queen angst begin! Someone needs to point out that naivety and blinders is not an excuse for not being vigil.
They were discovered when a reader e-mailed me Sunday night to tell me that a quote in our story attributed to a 10-year-old girl was identical to a statement attributed to a 4-year-old girl involved in a study of what preschoolers think about cigarettes and smoking. A simple Internet search revealed that the reader was correct. The quotation appeared not only in a summary document about the survey, but in an Associated Press story that was published in many newspapers. In his message to me, the reader suggested that it looked to him like "sloppy reporting at best, and unethical twisting of facts at worst." I believe he was right on both counts.
The reader should have asked why are you doing a story that seems to have been covered by the AP already when all you did was lower the age limit? They also have to go back and go over previous articles written by this reporter and see they are kosher.
In her defense, Behziz says she did not commit an intentional act of plagiarism. "To me it was sloppy journalism. It wasn't intentional." She also emphatically states, "I did not fabricate sources." She says her notes support the existence of the sources we could not find, and that they said what she quoted them as saying. She also said she felt a lot of pressure to perform under deadline. "I was stressed out," she said.
Fake but accurate?
So why didn't we uncover these flaws before we printed the story? The primary editor involved, Lois Henry, saw no red flags as she edited the story. In the editing process, the story went through several revisions. At one point Henry, a senior editor, told Behziz the story lacked the voices of ordinary people, especially teen smokers. The reporter resubmitted the story with plausible comments from people who were ostensibly "real." There are checks and balances in The Californian's news-gathering process. Reporters are required to double-check all verifiable information and to note in the story that the information is correct. And editors are expected to question reporters about their premise, their word choices, their facts. Stories like this are reviewed by multiple editors before seeing print. But from beginning to end, the system depends on trust. Because not every fact can be checked or re-reported, editors must rely on reporters and the other journalists in the organization to be accurate and ethical. In this case, Henry trusted Behziz to follow the rules -- interviewing real people and quoting them accurately.
You cannot have it both ways. If you have checks and balances but can be bypassed because you "trust" a reporter,your system is broken. This is the same reason why Mitch Albom got caught lying because his editor let stuff slide on the basis of his position in the paper. I guarantee if you did a spot check on these type of stories with the people angle in it around the country, you will find fake/copied quotes. These are the articles every editor should be checking before going to print.
As the reader wrote in his e-mail: "If I'm right, I'm sad to admit it lessens my faith in the newspaper. "How many other 'facts' are twisted up and slid into other stories, and to what purpose? Here, the error, if there was one, seems harmless. But I want to have trust in what I read in news stories. If I want to read fiction, I can go to that section of the library or bookstore."
The Easter Bunny is also not real. Update# Let me be fair and include this part.
This extraordinary matter requires an extraordinary response. We have begun a thorough examination of our internal procedures. All aspects of the news-gathering and editing process will be subject to this review. The review will include our hiring practices and our training. The entire news staff will be involved in this effort. In addition, we have detached a senior reporter, Gretchen Wenner, to begin the painful and painstaking task of checking all the stories published by the reporter involved in this matter. As we have done here, we will report back to you when we have completed that investigation.
Disregarding the drama queen language, they are taking the obvious steps, but one other person has to be suspended at least and that is the editor Lois Henry. Poor judgement on her part let the story to print, who knows how many other stories have passed her to print?

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