When Personal Problems Undermine Good Journalism

By Kitty, Alexandra | Editor & Publisher, December 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

When Personal Problems Undermine Good Journalism


Kitty, Alexandra, Editor & Publisher


Kitty is a freelance writer based in Dundas, Ontario.

Life's pressures can lead to stress and stress to misjudgments at work

In the past year, journalists, including the New Republic's Stephen Glass and The Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle, made headlines in connection with allegations of dishonest conduct. The public has little tolerance for journalistic errors, and there is even rebuke for journalists who face personal hardships and are untainted by scandal. Once errors or offenses become public, journalists face dismissal, and their organizations must explain why their actions went unnoticed.

Yet few professions are as stressful or scrutinized -- tight deadlines, demand for immaculate articles. bum-out and the risk of credibility-damaging errors. While the public expects them to perform flawlessly, reporters are not above human problems. Death in the family. divorce, depression and substance abuse can turn stoic, diligent professionals into distracted, negligent ones.

Personal problems can influence a reporter's work. As Cissy Patterson quipped, "I get up in the morning and look in the mirror and see that I'm never going to be young and pretty again, then I go down to the office and give Roosevelt hell."

Reporters are held to higher standards -- indiscretions and transgressions aren't tolerated -- while some professionals have more leeway to err yet keep their careers. Politicians can have a past, journalists cannot. High expectations present dilemmas. "Journalists are supposed to be objective, detached and leave their personal lives aside," says Clay Calvert, an assistant professor of communications and law at Pennsylvania State University. He notes the possibility that conflict "might take place between one's private life and one's public responsibilities and duties."

There are differences between unethical and careless journalism, but both can be tied to personal anguish. Janet Cooke blamed her demanding father for her fabrication of a story of a child drug addict, "Jimmy's World," which won and lost a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post. Personal problems can lead to unethical journalism in other ways. In the case of a sportswriter with a gambling habit, "you can imagine how that can interfere with objective reporting," Calvert says.

In 1983, R. Foster Winans. a Wall Street Journal columnist, was sent to prison for leaking information from his column to traders for personal profit.

Editors may be able to stop personal traumas from creeping into the journalism product by noticing behavioral changes and deviations from reporters normal writing style. "There are triggers editors have to get to know -- the styles of their reporters and their work habits -- and then watch for changes," says Ann Brill, assistant professor at the University of Missouri. "Some of the things [to] look for are quotes that just don't seem to make sense based on that reporter's work in the past. …

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