Journalists and the truth

Seek truth and report it. The first principle of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics makes it clear that without a foundation of truth, journalism is nothing. Editors play a vital role in upholding this principle, but editorial guidance and supervision can only go so far. The truth begins with the quality of the reporting and the integrity of the journalist. Therefore, seeking truth and reporting it requires that editors trust their reporters. But the truth and trust can contradict each other and deciding how to balance the two is an ethical question that every diligent editor must consider.

Many cases of serial plagiarism and fabrication in journalism are a result of trust gone too far. The work of reporters who are thought of as particularly trustworthy is often – intentionally or unintentionally – spared the rigorous fact checking that all good journalism needs. Such misplaced trust creates an environment in which lying, embellishing, fabricating or plagiarizing can flourish, despite the fact that these journalistic sins go against the profession’s most important adage: seek truth and report it.

A pertinent example of such misplaced trust is Jack Kelley, the star foreign correspondent at USA Today who was with the newspaper for 21 years before an investigation revealed that more than 100 of the 720 stories he published included plagiarized or fabricated material. Kelley developed a glowing reputation over the years and was known for being on the ground at the scene of nearly every major international conflict, for vivid descriptions, eye-witness accounts and regularly getting interviews that other reporters could only dream of snagging. His byline nearly always made it onto the front page. Colleagues have testified to his relentless work ethic and alter boy-like innocence – qualities that, along with his reputation at USA Today, protected his work from suspicion.

In 2004, an anonymous tip lead to an investigation. Kelley resigned after it was exposed that he had conspired with one of his translators to mislead editors attempting to authenticate stories that were suspected of being fabricated or embellished. But this was not the first time that questions were asked about Kelley. Over the years, USA Today staff members and other international reporters had raised concerns about the validity of Kelly’s work to editors at the newspaper, only to have them ignored because of the wide-spread belief that his reputation made him infallible.

The investigation continued after his resignation, looking into the culture and hierarchy of the newspaper that protected Kelley’s work from the scrutiny required of all responsible journalism for so long. USA Today concluded that: “Kelley’s status as ‘the star’ of the News staff, his frequent appearances on national television, his many speeches before diverse audiences, and the impression he conveyed that ranking executives of USA Today were his close friends gave him a special standing in the minds of many staffers. His severest critics believed that “the star” was untouchable.” In an apology, USA Today publisher Craig Moon wrote that “As an institution, we failed our readers by not recognizing Jack Kelley’s problems. For that I apologize. In the future, we will make certain that an environment is created in which abuses will never again occur.”

Having to call into the question the integrity of a reporter’s work undoubtedly puts the editors responsible in an uncomfortable situation, particularly when, as in Kelley’s case, the reporter is well liked and respected. Still, that is no excuse for editors across USA Today and at all levels of management to repeatedly put their trust in a reporter over the truth. When one reporter fabricates or plagiarizes a story, the entire publication and industry suffers as the readers loose faith in journalism’s ability to seek truth and report it. There is no individual reporter – novice intern or seasoned star – who is so infallible that allegations of dishonesty are not worth investigating. To do otherwise is to compromise the entire function of journalism.

A good reputation, earned over a long career of honest reporting, should go as far as to protect a journalist against inaccurate reporting born of honest mistakes or minor errors of judgment, not willful fabrication or plagiarism. Journalists should not wear trustworthiness like armor or wield it as a sword, like Jack Kelley did. Furthermore, trust is something a reporter must earn again and again with each story they write. Editors should apply the same vigorous test of truth to all work, no matter how seasoned the reporter. Such an editorial policy does not indicate a lack of trust, merely a commitment to the truth. An editor who trusts their reporters does not assume accuracy, but good intentions. This way, when a journalist makes a factual error, it can be corrected prior to publication, and if this happens repeatedly the editor will know their trust was misplaced before the readers are denied the true story