by Conrad Fink
Like burglars in the night, plagiarists sneaked into journalism’s inner sanctum and stole the twin jewels of credibility and authority from prestigious news organizations.
Among victims are The New York Times, USA Today, other leading newspapers and magazines — and, tragically, millions of readers who counted on those publications for the truth or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Writers plagiarized, lied and fabricated in an outbreak of journalistic felony unprecedented in my nearly 50 years in journalism or teaching it.
For us in academe, the warning is clear: Something threatening is afoot in wider society, not just journalism, and we must double-check the academy’s own door locks and burglar alarms.
Like education, big business or any other societal institution, journalism always had its cheaters and liars. But three things now raise my alarm to new heights:
First, the recent breakdown in journalistic ethics and social responsibility was so profound, so deep and widespread that we discovered not just a few liars but systemic failures in newsrooms and management suites. Editors weren’t editing; managers weren’t insisting that they must.
Second, never before has the news world been so complex, and, thus, never before has journalism’s responsibility been so great to deliver accurate, reliable information to news reader, viewer, listener.
Third, and hugely disturbing, journalism’s failure in one sense isn’t all that unusual. Indeed, it fits rather neatly into a wider societal pattern of lying and cheating in officialdom, gleeful looting of shareholder assets by corporate executives and a climate of lying cover-ups throughout church and state.
Journalism’s troubles stem in major part from its wholesale — and, at times, unthinking — adoption of narrowly profit-oriented management.
To improve profits in an era of stagnating revenue, many media managers implemented cost-reduction strategies that inevitably reduced the number and quality of editors in newsrooms. Editors became processors of news, overwhelmed by new technology and production responsibilities previously assigned to other departments.
And, in journalism, if you don’t have time to read copy with care, if you don’t challenge reporters and their sources, you’re going to get suckered by newsroom careerists who “pump” stories beyond their news merits to gain coveted front-page bylines.
I learned this as a cub reporter in Chicago in the 1950s, an era and place of journalism raw and less sophisticated than that practiced today by daintier elements of the press. But we, unlike many journalists today, had to live by a stern rule: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Editors sitting in seminars on product branding and marketing — tools of profit building — don’t have time to double-check mom.
Significantly, although the watchdog press was barking at everyone else in sight, it wasn’t barking at itself. Few journalistic felonies in the past two or three years were uncovered by competing news organizations. There is no sustained surveillance of each other by newspapers that take as their God-given mission the surveillance of all institutions of power in our society.
Not that many in journalism, our aspiring journalists included, don’t try to do the right thing.
My Grady College course in journalism ethics always is my most lively, and I am impressed by how intently my students concentrate on learning to do journalism the right way. Ethics and social responsibility are components of all our newspaper and magazine courses.
In professional journalism, every leading organization has a code of ethics. And nothing in my 50 years has been discussed more by editors and our professional associations than ethics.
So, why the failures?
Why, indeed, did two Grady students last year acknowledge they ignored all they learned in the classroom and submitted plagiarized articles to the independent student-run Red and Black newspaper?
Importantly, what lessons are in all this for academia and media?
For the media, two steps are crucial:
First, managers must develop the backbone to resist what I call the Rising Tide of Shareholder Expectation — the unending short-term pressure for ever-increased profit, even at the expense of long-term journalistic excellence and future viability. Current profit margins of 20 percent to 25 percent or more cannot be sustained if newsrooms are to create the journalism that will ensure even that there are newspapers in the future.
Second, editors must return to basics, creating high-quality journalism that is the obligatory trade-off in the societal mandate created for the press by the First Amendment and Fourth Estate concept.
And in academe?
We have a responsibility, greater even than the general public’s, to watch the watchdog — and to bark like hell when things go awry. Don’t trust stories quoting anonymous sources. Don’t trust writers who deliver, day after day, those marvelous anecdotes and superbly colorful quotes that the rest of us spent our careers chasing down, one by one, and often fruitlessly.
The press is an institution far too powerful to be without the careful, independent scrutiny and auditing that we in academe, with our specialized expertise and critical thinking, can provide.
Internally, we must accept the distasteful reality that journalistic felons discovered at The New York Times and elsewhere were products of our own system. Somehow, they got by us. Somehow, they left our classrooms without operative sense of right and wrong.
In attacking this, we are rowing against shifting tides, of course.
Vast amounts of information are free and readily available. Push a button and the genius of the world is summoned for a term paper, without ever leaving the dorm room. The ease of accumulation and technical manipulation — cutting and pasting — leads to misappropriation of material.
And, a different morality is building. Don’t believe me? Just ask your students whether they are stealing when “file sharing” or downloading music without payment or permission.
Must we approach students with heightened suspicion? No. That word is too harsh. But clearly we must create a teaching environment that puts us in close touch with individual students.
Just as media managers must spend more in newsrooms, so must we in classrooms to reduce class size. Only with smaller classes can we reach students effectively on matters of ethics, right and wrong.
Any writer, young or old, establishes a “footprint,” a recognizable personal style. Student writing that suddenly soars above that footprint, writing that suddenly sparkles with Einstein-like genius might in fact be lifted from Einstein. But teachers will recognize that only if familiar with established footprints — something possible in small classes, never in auditoriums of 300 students trying to find their way in shifting tides.
Now (and this, of course, opens a wider debate), does that mean we must teach not only how to do it but also how to do it the right way, in a context of morality and search for higher principle?
We in journalism education must teach not only how to report and write but also how to do it honestly, the right way.
Others among you must teach not only how to be a business executive or banker but also how to be an honest executive or banker; not only how to be a scientist, but also how to be an honest scientist with true reverence for the greater traditions of science.
It all starts with us. Here. Now.
For more information, contact Conrad Fink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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