Journalists face more scrutiny


After The New York Times revealed that Jayson Blair lied, plagiarized and fabricated his way… After The New York Times revealed that Jayson Blair lied, plagiarized and fabricated his way through a short-lived career at that paper, many people in America – including journalists – questioned how the field of journalism might change to protect the credibility of newspapers.

“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t mention it,” said Ari Goldman, associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former New York Times reporter. “It’s the ultimate cautionary tale for journalists. I’m more vigilant towards students who are cutting corners.”

Goldman also said that, although increased scrutiny of student journalists’ work is likely at just about any university, he’s changed his mind about whether it will be harder for students to find jobs.

“At first, I thought that this is a bad thing for all young journalists, but it hasn’t proven to be,” Goldman said. He described how another Times reporter, Rick Bragg, was fired after using stringers, or freelance journalists, to write his stories.

“What’s happened as a result is that they’re now giving credit to these stringers, which gives young journalists a chance to shine,” Goldman said.

Columbia’s tough policies – which have always included expulsion for any confirmed case of plagiarism – are echoed by the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where Blair attended some classes but lied about graduating from the college.

Associate Dean Chris Callahan said that Blair’s case is used to reinforce the importance of ethical standards.

“All we have is our credibility,” said Callahan. “That’s the basis of the relationship between reader and newspaper.”

Callahan doesn’t think that Blair’s antics caused a drop in readership at the Times or other newspapers, but he does feel that people view papers with a more wary eye.

“What Jayson did was deplorable, not only because it was unprofessional, but also because it brought dishonor to a profession that prides itself on its honor,” said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Executive Editor David Shribman. “I think that he opened our eyes to the possibility of large-scale, concerted, deliberate deceit.”

The Post-Gazette’s hiring policies probably won’t change, Shribman said, but the newspaper is “more sensitive” to shortcuts and standards not being maintained, which are also warning signs that professors look for in their students’ work.

“There has to be the spirit that this is a profession that’s both demanding and exacting,” Goldman said. “I think this is an opportunity for journalism to reinforce its standards, and for professors to make sure this message goes forth.”

Peter Leo, the Post-Gazette’s writing coach, a columnist and a Pitt instructor, said that young journalists shouldn’t be discouraged by Blair’s example. The Post-Gazette isn’t currently hiring, but “if we were, we’d do it gladly and boldly,” Leo said. “If anything, we need more young people. They bring energy, excitement and ambition to the workplace.”

“There’s nothing foolproof about the hiring process,” Leo added. “The same journalistic instinct we use for news, we use for hiring.”

New York Times editors did not return messages, but the news giant created the new position of “standards editor” as one of the ways to cope with the Blair scandal, part of the “outgrowth of an internal investigation,” said Callahan, who shares Leo’s optimism about the future of young reporters, and of journalism as a whole.

“In the short term, there’s an eroding effect on credibility,” Callahan said. “Over the long term, it has the potential to help. In any good industry, when something horrible happens, you fix it and try to learn from it and try to make that industry better.”