Protecting the currency of trust in all we publish
It's hard to believe it's been a decade since New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was caught in a web of deceit and plagiarism that cast a deep stain of doubt on the credibility not just of his employer but of newspaper people everywhere. His pathetic and disturbing case was a reminder to editors of the sacred compact we make with readers to report truthfully, of the responsibilities we have to hold up our part of the deal — and, of the challenges newspapers face in fulfilling those responsibilities.
As The New York Times indicated in its own article describing the Blair affair, it is difficult for any newspaper to "guard against willful deceit." With the expansion of the Internet since Blair's time, it has only become more difficult. Nor is the realm of potential deceits limited to reporters. It also extends to anyone who writes for a publication, including guest columnists and contributors to our letters space.
With everyone who writes for us, we must by the nature of our work accept a fundamental bond of trust, a trust that says what you write is what you honestly saw, heard or believe and it is your own. We take this trust seriously and — the Jayson Blairs, Janet Cookes and Stephen Glasses of the world notwithstanding — rarely see it broached. Ah, but sometimes. Sometimes.
Last week we published a letter to the editor from a writer who had listed a series of historical facts in an attempt to show the dangers of gun control. An online commenter knew of a similar list from YouTube. Investigating, we found the list was repeated almost verbatim from the YouTube video and, worse, that the conclusion of the letter actually copied word for word several paragraphs from a web essay on gun control. In neither case did the letter writer acknowledge the source.
We contacted the writer to let him know that his letter was being corrected at our website to identify the actual sources of the information and his name removed. Any future submissions from him will be carefully investigated and if we find any repeat of the situation, we'll simply refuse to print any more of his work. We received no note of explanation or apology.
Not so long ago, we had a similar case in which we discovered an act of plagiarism in a letter after it had been published. When we contacted that missive's submitter, he responded that we shouldn't be offended because it couldn't be plagiarism if he really believed what the letter said and just wanted his beliefs said in that way.
Well, of course we were and it could. One might well agree with what a certain writer has to say about freedom, democracy and valor and think it must be said in just such a way but that doesn't make him the author of the Gettysburg address, This "writer" too was warned and watched.
Perhaps the most common such breach of trust is one we often manage to catch before publication. Some people call it AstroTurf, fake "grass roots" letters that special interests post at their websites encouraging followers to copy and submit to local newspapers. Fortunately, the ring of deceit is just strong enough in such letters to arouse suspicion and stir us to identify their true authorship.
The source of all such deceptions is not all that different from that for Jayson Blair's. Writing is hard work. So is thinking. And research and interviewing and reporting. With thousands of years of story telling and pontification splayed out across the Internet, it's much easier simply to make things up or to appropriate the words of someone else.
But in newspapers, that's not what we do. Our primary currency is trust, and we aim to guard it whether it's in our own writing or that which we facilitate for others.
Jim Slusher is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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