Breaking Down the Truth

With news coverage of a few notable cases of plagiarism in the past month, I’ve reflected on how lapses in journalism ethics can affect much more than just the individual perpetrator or the single organization for which he or she works. Jonah Lehrer, a well-regarded young journalist, recently resigned from his position at The New Yorker for making up quotes from Bob Dylan in his latest pop culture novel. ESPN Entertainment writer Lynn Hoppes emerged as a repeat-offender in verbatim cut-and-paste from Wikipedia for his articles. SportsCenter lifted a full breaking news report about an NBA player from a lesser-known sports website without any attribution.

The cases mentioned above may be high-profile media blunders, but the recognizable news organizations under which they occurred represent the benchmark, the “big leagues” of their respective fields of journalism. As a young journalist, if you had considered these organizations as the highest standard with principled individuals who use the tried and true process of accurate reporting no matter the circumstances on a daily basis, of what further use is that standard?

These cases of fabricating and hijacking material come at a time when there is not only a speed factor to see who breaks the news first, but also some stiff competition just to determine which writer’s piece gets published in a given media outlet. This fight for coverage also gives rise to a “whatever it takes” mentality in reporting. Unfortunately, some journalists believe it takes sensation and shortcuts to get exposure in print or broadcast.

Of course, the workplace environment of news organization itself feeds into this, as the chain reaction of economic pressures to budget cuts to shrinking staff numbers is nothing new in print media. But I take issue when the public relations strategy of a news organization that has a plagiarism incident is to quickly situate the offender as merely an outlier in a well-oiled reporting machine. Instead of an organizational or industrial pat-down, the result is a termination or a wrist-slap, and it is back to business as usual.

Instead of positioning these occurrences as isolated incidents carried out by rogue individuals, how can we respond to these situations as PR professionals? Undoubtedly, we must reiterate to our clients that due to smaller numbers and the fight for coverage the reporting process is not as buttoned-up as it once was. In the wake of economic woes, young reporters are not always put through extensive training and probation under experienced news professionals, who have been let go due to budget cuts.

At a time when Web frenzy puts pressure on the truth and all types of journalists searching for it, saying nothing is a terrible strategy. Lying is worse. In the flow of information from PR professional to reporter, mistakes will be made, but corrections should also be expected. In the case of crisis communication and contrary to today’s news media norms, quick reaction usually leads to swift miscommunication. Therein lies the irony of breaking, real time reporting: when there are many reporters with speed as top priority, the truth can be run over in a hurry.

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