Sadly, we’re seeing the same thing happen in journalism.
This week it was Jonah Lehrer, a 31-year-old science writer at The New Yorker and author of the best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Lehrer resigned after admitting he made up quotes for singer Bob Dylan in “Imagine.” This was after Lehrer was caught recycling his blog posts from other publications. The once-rising star is now jobless and humiliated, and his popular book is being yanked from shelves by the publisher.
Of course, there are plenty of these black eyes in the profession’s history, going back to the days of “yellow journalism” in the late 1800s, where misleading headlines and hyperbole were de riguer. More recently, we have The New York Times’ Jayson Blair and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, both of whom admitted making up stories—in Cooke’s case, a story that earned a Pulitzer Prize.
And just since this past Memorial Day:
-- Reporter Paresh Jha was fired by the New Canaan (Conn.) News for alleged fabrications in up to 25 stories;
-- Intern Liane Membis got broomed by The Wall Street Journal after accusations of making up sources;
-- Chicago-area news organization Pioneer Press Publications shed photographer Tamara Bell after she admitted to 22 made-up quotes in photo essays;
-- The Chicago Tribune fired third-party news provider Journatic after elements of a sports story were found to be either plagiarized or made up.
In an industry that builds itself on a reputation of truth and accuracy, fabrication is more than just an error in judgment; it shatters the very foundations of journalism. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll revealed that the public’s confidence in both TV and print news is at an all-time low.
It’s easy—and correct—to blame the individuals. They chose to act as they did and should be held accountable.
But journalism does itself a great disservice if it stops there. These are examples of fundamental problems in the profession. News media are so caught up in the 24/7 competitive news cycle that speed and quantity have outstripped accuracy. Compounding this is ongoing cutbacks in newsrooms that have sent veteran reporters packing, dismissed copy editing and fact checking, and dumped more and more responsibility on less-experienced staffers.
The New York Times columnist David Carr lamented the lack of urgency among journalists to address these problems. “We think of ourselves as doing the People’s work, and write off lapses in ethics and practices as potholes on the way to a Greater Truth,” he wrote.
Nineteenth-century British writer Thomas Carlyle called journalism “the Fourth Estate,” a non-governmental institution that wields great influence on society. It seems that institution is being tainted with the same unethical brush with which it so often paints the other estates.
And our civilization is that much darker, that much weaker, because of it.