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Truth or Consequences

Navigating counterfeit journalism in the digital age

by Eileen Reynolds / GSAS '11

The premise of the “Google Game,” as the Poynter Institute’s Craig Silverman called it, was simple: Paste text from science writer Jonah Lehrer’s Frontal Cortex blog into the search engine, and in seconds find a nearly identical passage from one of Lehrer’s previous pieces—published in, say, The Wall Street Journal. Legions of amateur sleuths joined in the hunt after media blogger Jim Romenesko first busted The New Yorker’s newest staff writer for repurposing old material on the magazine’s website in June 2012.

Some readers at first dismissed Lehrer’s “self-plagiarism” as a minor misstep by an impressive, if overworked, young journalist. Lehrer, 31, had penned three best-selling books on neuroscience and well-received articles for top-notch publications such as The Washington Post and Nature. But his defenders fell silent on July 30, when Michael C. Moynihan revealed in Tablet magazine that Lehrer had fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer’s publisher pulled it from bookstore shelves. The New Yorker fired him. An investigation of 18 of Lehrer’s Wired.com blog posts by NYU journalism professor and fellow science reporter Charles Seife uncovered 17 instances of “recycled” material, outright plagiarism, language lifted directly from press releases, or distortions of fact. Wired terminated his contract.

In weeks, Lehrer became one of the most notorious names in modern journalism, alongside Stephen Glass, the New Republic writer who dreamed up whole characters and scenes for more than two dozen articles; Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who wrote dispatches from far-flung states without leaving his Brooklyn apartment; and Jack Kelley, who fudged details in a USA Today story that led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination in beat reporting. And Lehrer’s wasn’t the only fall from grace in a season Silverman dubbed “journalism’s summer of sin”: Time magazine editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria was suspended for plagiarizing a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, and Connecticut’s New Canaan News fired staff writer Paresh Jha after discovering that he’d fabricated sources and quotes in at least 25 stories.

Had ethically challenged journalists become more common or simply easier to expose, thanks to the Internet? With readers’ trust at stake, editors, publishers, journalism professors, and students now face thorny questions about how to repair a system that has allowed wayward writers to rise through its ranks. At the center of this dilemma is the industry’s own convulsive transition to online journalism, and the fall of rigorous editing and fact-checking. Professor Seife wrote for Slate that he believes Lehrer’s “journalistic moral compass is badly broken”—but he also told NYU Alumni Magazine that “it’s easy to point fingers at the bad guys without looking too carefully at systemic problems.”

“It’s easy to point fingers at the bad guys without looking too carefully at systemic problems,” journalist Charles Seife says.

One of those problems is that writers and editors are expected to do more with less. Venerable publications have been cutting corners for more than a decade as readers have gone online and subscriptions have declined. At the same time, journalists must write quickly and often, frequently sidestepping time-consuming editorial processes to keep up with the fast pace of the Web. “It breeds sloppiness, shoddiness, and almost plagiarism,” Seife says. Lehrer’s blog posts, for example, escaped the multiple rounds of editing and fact-checking for which The New Yorker is renowned, even though they too ran under the magazine’s prestigious banner.

In a more universally embarrassing stumble last November, the Associated Press, Forbes, Business Insider, and TechCrunch were all forced to retract statements after announcing that Google would purchase ICOA, a wireless Internet provider, for $400 million. The source of the information was a press release later revealed to be a fake—written, perhaps, by an investor seeking to profit by artificially inflating the price of ICOA’s stock. “We all make mistakes,” says Adam Penenberg, also an NYU journalism professor. “But the idea of not checking out a press release, not checking with the company, not trying to get a comment? That’s egregious.”

Penenberg knows better than anyone that a writer determined to twist the truth can do so in any medium: As a young Forbes.com business technology reporter, he was the first to uncover the deceptions of Stephen Glass, who thwarted The New Republic’s fact-checkers by creating notes, diagrams, and even a phony website to corroborate wholly invented stories for the print magazine. These days, Penenberg calls himself a “platform agnostic”—meaning he believes articles should be held to the same high standards whether they appear online or in print. But he acknowledges that it’s difficult for even the most vigilant editorial gatekeepers given the sheer volume of content online.

One solution would be to simply publish less. Seife suggests that smaller publications, especially, should focus their energies on careful, old-fashioned reporting—the pain-staking work of “doing research, speaking to people, and getting documents" in order to bring readers something of unique value—rather than simply digesting news from larger outlets and "repackaging it with a little flavor and a little added snark.”

New media can also present ethical quandaries for which a clear set of guidelines has yet to emerge. Social media platforms, for example, have collapsed the distinction between public and private life for journalists like everyone else. After drawing criticism for her comments on Facebook and Twitter about hostilities in Gaza last fall, New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren was assigned an editor to help manage her social media presence. But it seems unrealistic to expect all reporters to consult with their editors before posting each tweet.

As part of NYU’s business and economic reporting curriculum, Penenberg has added training in multimedia journalism, social media, and even HTML and CSS coding—all in the interest of equipping graduates with the skills demanded of the digital age. But this also means diverting time away from the basics of what he calls “hard-nosed reporting.” When evaluating student work, Penenberg routinely investigates phrases or passages that seem “too good to be true”—and calls in students to talk about what he finds. (Students sign an ethics pledge at the start of study at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and those who violate it risk expulsion.) Sometimes a conversation about journalistic responsibility can be enough to break a bad habit.

Perhaps the best way for journalists to keep themselves honest is to seek out editors who, whether they work in print, online, or both, do what good journalism professors do. “To have a devil’s advocate, a good editor who tried to destroy your story, who tried to poke holes in your argument—I don’t like operating without that,” Seife says. In an age of instant publishing and feedback, the greatest discipline might just be avoiding situations in which what you write goes, as Seife puts it, “straight from your brain to the world.”