Confronting the Culture: The Culprit Behind the Recurring Clusters of Plagiarism and Fabrication Scandals Isn't Just Irresponsible Youth or a Few Bad Apples or the Temptations of the Internet. It May Be the Newsroom Culture Itself

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Out of excuses? It sure seems like it.

In the not-too-distant past, journalism sages, columnists and otherwise rational old people were quick to condemn the ethically lax, morally inept, not-able-to-handle-the-pressure-of-the-big-time "kids these days" as the root of the plagiarism and fabrication problem. Young journalists--whom one newspaper columnist I interviewed defined as anyone under the age of 40--can thank Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair for the slew of blame-it-on-the-young diatribes.

If only the problem were that simple. Since Glass' fictionalizing was discovered in 1998, the journalism industry has continued to posit a number of perfectly legitimate cures for the recurring spates of ethical transgressions: We need new ethics codes, a system of fact-checking, tougher editors who ask hard questions of reporters, lectures for new hires and, if all else fails, the latest plagiarism detection software. But as the recent round of cheating cases cropped up--a collection that included a wide array of culprits, from veterans and stars of the profession to those who claimed they weren't really journalists--there was a decided lack of excuses put forth. No whining about temptations of the Internet. Little bemoaning the sad state of youth.

Has the search for why been called off? Or is the industry ready to tackle a much more difficult matter: the culture?

Nobody wants to hear this. "Culture" is so new-agey, touchy-feely, some would say "soft," awfully gauzy for a place as crass, competitive and cynical as a newsroom.

But those who espouse taking a look at the journalism culture as a possible cause of ethics ills say a fix requires drawing clear distinctions between what is acceptable and what isn't, getting rid of double standards and drastic inequality, and making accuracy as big a rallying cry as beating the competition. What kinds of behavior do newsrooms reward? What messages does that send?

Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, has been in the news business for 50 years. He examined these issues closely as one of the main investigators USA Today tapped to look at Jack Kelley's fabrications and how the newsroom's culture may have enabled a breach of ethics to go on for so long. Kovach agrees with the theory that the industry has run out of excuses for plagiarism and fabrication. He says if there is to be an ultimate solution, "whoever's in charge of the newsroom is going to have to create a culture and an atmosphere within which everybody knows this is not acceptable. You can't cheat and stay here. The integrity of everything we put into our report has to be guaranteed by everybody in the process.... You, each person, has a personal responsibility for that.... And in the competitive world we live in now, there are enough people who are still prepared to ease the rules in order not to be beaten on the big stories all the time."


Newsrooms praise those who get the stuff nobody else gets--a la Blair and Kelley and who knows how many lesser-known creative criminals (not to mention perfectly honest and splendid reporters). As long as news organizations are prepared to allow competitive pressures to be an excuse to ease up on integrity, says Kovach, "it's going to keep happening."

Deni Elliott, who teaches media ethics at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, says the one thing the news business hasn't looked at in plagiarism and fabrication cases "is what journalism as an industry does to promote cheating." She explains: "Things that award the exact quote, the exact moment in terms of a picture ... if the focus is on that tiny product, then I think that that sends a message that that's what ultimately matters."

Then there's the increasing pressure to produce, produce, produce--in a 24-hour, multimedia news world of rampant downsizing. "The more pressure that is put on journalists to produce more, faster, quicker, cheaper, the more the industry encourages cutting corners, which is just another way of saying cheating," Elliott says. …