Reporters pay price for fake news
This was also written for my Huffington Post blog. Fake news and dirty tricks are among the themes of both "Season of Lies" and "Killing the Curse."
There’s a difference between being skeptical and cynical.
Skeptical, defined as “not easily convinced,” is what all journalists should be. Cynical, defined as “distrustful of human sincerity and integrity,” is what journalists must fight not to become.
It’s an easy trap that reporters can spring on themselves; sometimes without recognizing the tripwires. This can come from too many meals of half-truths, obfuscations and, at times, outright lies fed by sources. You must remind yourself that one of the true joys of journalism is the opportunity to meet so many exceptional and interesting people and share their stories.
Editors also can fall prey. So, I was feeling cynical one day about 15 years ago when the phone rang in my office. I was editor and publisher of a fine local newspaper, the York Daily Record in southern Pennsylvania.
The caller claimed he was misquoted in a sports feature about a kicker for Penn State University who had made a legendary and important game-winning field goal.
“Yeah,” I thought to myself. “Sure.”
My cynicism was based on past experiences in which sources claimed to be misquoted. Crying wolf is human nature, especially in a story in which you either don’t like the portrayal or unexpected grief rains down after the story appears. The natural reaction is to say, “Hey, I never said that. The reporter got it wrong. They made it up.” It isn’t always an intentional deflection either. People are quite capable of convincing themselves that something false is true. Ask any cop.
The caller directed me to a middle of the story where his recollections appeared in a direct quote that, as I recall, said he “ran around like a madman” after the Nittany Lions won the game.
I’m going by memory, but the gist of what he told me next was this: “I’m a clinical psychologist. I am very sensitive to language about mental illness. I simply would never say that. It’s not me. It embarrasses me professionally.”
That made sense. He said he had debated whether to call. He felt badly about getting the young reporter into trouble, but he finally decided he had to say something. He said he would want to know about this if he had my job.
I assured him that I would follow up with the reporter and his editor, and let him know the outcome.
We met with the reporter – a bright and talented young man who was still in his 90-day probation period. After a brief discussion, he admitted he had made up the quote. We asked him what he hoped to accomplish.
His response was something like this: “I just felt like I needed to jazz up the story in that spot.”
He knew it was wrong. He was remorseful and promised he’d learn from it.
We fired him. The integrity of the newspaper was too important.
“Good for you,” you might be saying. But there’s a larger point. The core integrity and honesty of journalists is threatened regularly today. Editors everywhere worry about heightened security and the physical safety of their reporters – a problem that used to be confined to war zones like Syria and Afghanistan.
The charge that journalists regularly “make things up” is fake news in and of itself. Yes, it happens, as it did that day in York and most famously in the case of the Washington Post surrendering a Pulitzer Prize won by reporter Janet Cooke over an invented story, “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The fabrications of journalist Stephen Glass were so egregious that Hollywood made a good movie, “Shattered Glass,” about it. However, typical reporters lose sleep over even a minor correction. I had to correct a correction once when I was a young police reporter in Galesburg, Ill. The mistake was honest but so embarrassing it shames me four decades later. It was like getting my pants pulled down in front of 25,000 people.
I am not saying reporters are without biases. Successfully fighting biases and preconceived notions are critically important skills. Some reporters are too cynical and snarky. The tone in Washington is too overheated.
But I am saying this: Journalists deserve appreciation. Ninety-nine percent of journalists take their jobs seriously. It’s a hard job with tons of second-guessing, long hours and often low pay. They try very hard to get things right.
Reporters who make things up lose their jobs. Not so much for some of the people they cover. If you’re not careful, it’s enough to make you cynical.