Stopping the Next Jayson Blair

Question: How can journalism organizations prevent \r\nJayson Blair-style scandals?
\r\n

\r\nDaniel Okrent: You know, I think that there will always be small \r\nscale scandals.  There will always be plagiarists.  There will always be\r\n people who didn’t make the phone call they claimed to have made, but \r\nthe chronic repeated abuse that Jayson Blair was engaged in, I don’t \r\nthink could happen at a newspaper that has a public editor, or \r\nombudsman.  

\r\nYes, there was a phone number published in the newspaper in The Times \r\nevery day for people to call if they had something that they objected \r\nto.  And when I got there, I thought I’d try out the system.  Well, it \r\nsaid mailbox full.  Nobody had been paying attention to it.  If you have\r\n somebody whose job it is specifically to respond to readers who are \r\ncomplaining or are pointing out error, or pointing out misbehavior on \r\nthe part of reporters, it’s very hard... I can’t imagine that it would \r\nnot be caught after the second or third time because somebody’s reading \r\nthat mail.  Somebody’s paying attention to it.

\r\nQuestion:
What ethical issues do today's journalists face that \r\nprevious generations didn't?
\r\n

Daniel Okrent: My biggest concern about the digital \r\ntechnology as it’s coming to the newsroom is it’s anonymity of writers; \r\nwhether that’s the person who’s writing a blog, or who’s commenting on a\r\n signed blog.  We don’t know who those people are.  And one thing, and \r\nthis is not an ethical issue, this is a question of civility and taste. \r\n I mean, it allows cowards to hide behind that scrim while they have the\r\n freedom to say really awful and disgusting things.  And I can’t stand \r\nthat.  It’s very upsetting to me.  

But beyond that, there have \r\nbeen a few instances where that person whose been commenting on this Web\r\n site or that Web site, in fact is a principal in the story, is in fact a\r\n figure who has a self-interest, but is hiding that self-interest.  I \r\nwould really be delighted to see the Web sites of the world just \r\nsuddenly declare, put on your real name or we don’t care what you have \r\nto say.  And in fact, I don’t care what you... you shouldn’t care what I\r\n have to say unless I’m willing to put my name behind it.

\r\n Question:
Were journalistic standards better in the \r\npast?
\r\n

\r\nDaniel Okrent: I think that the peak years for quality journalism\r\n in this country were 1970’s and early 1980’s.  If you go back before \r\nthen, I mean, pickup a copy of the New York Times in 1965 some day.  It \r\nwas unbelievably dull.  It was official-ese.  If the new Peruvian \r\nAmbassador appointed, there it was in the paper, the shipping news, just\r\n the sort of the kind of deadly required drone of news in those days was\r\n really pretty awful.  The paper got much, much better after that as did\r\n all of American journalism.  And I think that Watergate, obviously, had\r\n a great deal to do with that.  Watergate and also the magazine writers \r\nof the ‘60’s, the people like Gay Talese and David Halberstam who both \r\ncame out of The Times, but then moved to other arenas to be able to do \r\nmore than simply chronicle.  They could write.  They did more.  

Coming\r\n together, that and the great victory for journalism that was Watergate \r\ncreated a, I think in the ‘70’s attracted better people to the industry,\r\n it was a more exciting thing to do and people did their greatest work \r\nthen.  And the standards were very, very high.  As we get into the \r\n‘90’s, and we begin to have economic trouble begin to show up, Time \r\nMagazine, where I worked for quite a while, in 1990 had eight full-time \r\ncritics on staff doing different things.  Today, I think there’s one \r\nfull-time critic and that’s not that criticism is not the most important\r\n thing in the world, but I use it as an indication of how things have \r\nshrunk back because of the economic problems.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

There will always be plagiarists and reporters who didn’t make the phone call they claimed to have made. But an ombudsman can make the difference in preventing chronic lapses of journalistic ethics.

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