Drilled into the heads of every Journalism 1100 student is the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Journalists should seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.
Yet it’s amazing how many journalists, both amateur and professional, still break these guidelines. I know I’m being idealistic in thinking every journalist wants to tell the truth for the betterment of democracy and wouldn’t think of promoting a hidden agenda, and that those with agendas are only found in public relations. From the past 14 years of schooling, I’ve learned people, even those who are least suspected to, will take an easy way out if it’s there.
Take, for instance, Liane Membis, a Yale graduate. After writing nearly 50 articles for the Yale Daily News and being published by the Huffington Post and CNN, the Wall Street Journal certainly didn’t doubt her reporting abilities when it hired her as an intern for summer 2012. WSJ did, however, after “Bridging a Local Divide,” which appeared on the front page of the Greater New York section, was found to be fabricated. Sources and their quotes could not be confirmed by Membis, and WSJ didn’t work to verify them until after questions had been raised. It seems as though Membis might have gotten away with it before, too — the Yale Daily News editor admitted the paper didn’t fact-check, and only upon hearing about the WSJ article stated staff members would fact-check her articles as best as they could. The fact her college newspaper didn’t think to perform accuracy checks astounds me, especially since it is emphasized so much at the Missouri School of Journalism for good reason — credibility is everything, and false reporting can ruin a career, as it ruined Membis’.
Unfortunately, this isn’t to say it doesn’t happen even when it is emphasized. The Maneater, the newspaper for which I work, prides itself on being a “learning paper.” Our goal is to help students improve their journalistic skills and learn the correct things to do before they find themselves in a professional newsroom. One of our biggest emphases is on accuracy checks — we mandate every staff member to call or email each source back with facts and quotes the reporter plans to use in the article the source said, and the source must confirm or correct these bits of information. This year, we’ve even implemented a policy where section editors won’t glance at a story until accuracy checks have been performed. But this isn’t to say we haven’t had crafty student journalists in the past. We had a few incidents last year with one particular reporter, who would make up quotes without a second thought. We talked with him and gave him a warning the first two times, but after the third time, we asked him not to return. He became angry and said choice words to many of our editors, but we weren’t bothered because we knew we did the right thing.
However, I’ve even heard of instances where the person in charge isn’t aware of how unethical this is. I was talking with the current editor of my high school’s yearbook the other day who told me something alarming. Per my recommendation, the staff implemented accuracy checks the year after I graduated because some of our staff members had a history of fabricating quotes for convenience. The yearbook sponsor changed this year, and when she looked at a page, she told the editor she wanted to change some of the students’ quotes. The editor looked alarmed and asked why, to which the sponsor (an adult with a college degree, mind you) replied, “I just … I just don’t like them.”
It truly amazes me how people think being dishonest is OK, especially looking at how many people claim how “dishonest” the media are and then proceed to do something equally dishonest. Though I don’t know if this problem will ever disappear, unfortunately, I think we can just continue to educate young journalists, as well as the general public, about journalism ethics, and SPJ has come up with a nice way to do that.