Young journalists battle Blair image

by K.C. Howard

Ed Ronco, editor in chief of Michigan State University’s The State News, said he is occasionally teased for his journalistic ambitions.

“It comes up in small talk,” Ronco said. “You’re out at a party and someone says, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a Jayson Blair?’ “

A year after The New York Times launched an investigation into the works of Jayson Blair, one of its youngest reporters, on suspicions of plagiarism, college journalists and journalism classes are still feeling some of the impact.

On May 1, 2003, the Blair incident began a flurry of discussions in newsrooms across the country when editors discovered he committed frequent journalistic frauds, including pretending to report from locations he never visited, making up sources and stealing content from other publications.

The Times picked up the 27-year-old reporter as an intern in 1999 and proceeded to employ him full time, assigning him to national stories, according to news media. He has become somewhat of an iconic mogul in the career path of the young, ambitious reporter.

Big Ten universities are mixed in their reaction to the incident. Some newspapers have reviewed or added ethics codes and changed their editing policies. Others have done nothing.

But the consensus of journalism professors, students and college newspaper editors seems to be that Blair’s far-reaching plagiarism and fabrications are not new and should not sway the public’s perception of young writers.

Ronco said he believes the event has renewed reader distrust, but he and other university editors said the scandal has had little impact on their reporters’ relationships with sources.

Nothing new

Until Blair, Janet Cooke was the paradigm of journalism plagiarism.

In 1981, Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin victim. Editors later discovered she fabricated the story; Cooke resigned and the Post returned the award.

“This is the landmark case when we talk about fabrication,” said Sherrie Mazingo, a University journalism ethics professor. “It was the Post that started the standards in terms of deep investigations.”

After Blair, there was Jack Kelley, who resigned from USA Today in January when the paper found evidence that he fabricated at least eight stories.

The Times and USA Today investigations that ensued brought down top editors. On a smaller scale, college publications have dealt with similar scandals and internal affair inquiries.

During the last year, at least four college newspapers – including The Minnesota Daily – have reported plagiarism incidents.

In February, the Daily discovered a former freelancer lifted content from the Star Tribune and a copyrighted Web site for an article published in May 2003.

The Daily – circulation 31,000 – has since subscribed to the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code, a code that writers might have unofficially followed during the publication’s 104-year history.

“The Blair and Kelley scandals have highlighted the importance of ethical journalism, and our problem here in the past year spotlighted those issues even more,” said Daily Editor in Chief Shane Hoefer. He said formal adoption of the ethics code was something the organization had planned since May 2003.

“All new hires since February have been given the (ethics) policy, which is now incorporated into the very first orientation they have,” he said.

In February, the editor in chief of Clemson University student newspaper in South Carolina resigned after he admitted copying passages and ideas from other publications, according to news reports.

Clemson newspaper editors could not be reached for comment.

Other newsrooms have implemented new editing procedures since the Blair and Kelley incidents hit newsstands.

“We started doing fact-checking sheets for every single article a reporter works on,” said Megan Eckhardt, editor in chief of the Daily Iowan, a 20,000-circulation paper. “It’s helped cut down on the errors quite a bit.”

Plagiarism in the classroom

Not all professional journalists spring from journalism degrees, but professors of the craft said the classes can help rid the field of maverick ethicists.

University lecturer Gayle Golden, who teaches News Writing and Reporting – a class all print journalism students take – said she generally sees a couple of cases of plagiarism each semester.

“The students I have caught doing that usually drop the course,” she said. “I have never had a student do it twice. They have either rallied or been traumatized by it.

“You go through life being really paranoid about plagiarizing and you’re going to be fine.”

Golden recently started requiring students to provide contact information for sources used in stories for her class – a method that appears to have curbed dubious shortcuts.

She “Googles” students’ syntax and makes cold calls to sources to see if students got their quotes right, a method Mazingo said newspapers have started using in the aftermath of Blair and other fabricators.

“You can be sure newspapers all over the country are tightening the reigns,” Mazingo said.