The media is usually the bearer of bad news, but what happens when one of their own violates the journalistic code of ethics?
In what is becoming an all too common occurrence, veteran reporter Karen Jeffrey from the Cape Cod Times
was called out this week for being a serial fabricator. Apparently, she'd been making up sources dating back to at least the 1990s.
“In an audit of Jeffrey’s work, Times
editors have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998, when we began archiving stories electronically,” Times
editors wrote this week in an apology to readers
According to journalism think tank Poynter.org
, this is the third instance this year of a mass fabrication by journalists. That’s on top of other instances of fabrication that don’t fall into the “serial” category.
“Jeffrey’s offenses stand out for their frequency, and for the length of time she got away with it,” said Craig Silverman, who reports on media errors for Poynter
. “Fabrication is always scandalous, but it’s all the more outrageous when someone can get away with it for so long.”
What makes this latest instance notable is the quick, complete, and honest approach the reporter’s editors and publisher took once they discovered the initial fabrication. As Silverman notes, some other media outlets are quick to gloss over fabrications instead of coming completely clean.
The Cape Cod Times
covered the news like it would any other breach of ethics. In a 1,024-word apology
to readers, editor Paul Pronovost and publisher Peter Meyer (in a bylined story) offered a complete look at how they found out about the fabrications—including examples of her fabricated—while trying to explain how it happened. They noted that the reporter no longer works for the paper.
“How did this happen? Or more important, how did we allow this to happen?” Pronovost and Meyer wrote. “It's a question we cannot satisfactorily answer. Clearly we placed too much trust in a reporter and did not verify sourcing with necessary frequency.”
Taking a page from classic crisis communication strategy, they offered a personal apology without making any excuses and holding themselves to the same scrutiny as the paper does other members of the public:
“This column is our first step toward addressing what we uncovered. We needed to share these details, as uncomfortable as they are, because we are more than a private company dealing with a personnel issue—we are a newspaper and we have broken our trust with you. We deeply regret this happened and extend our personal apology to you.”
Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor. He heads up the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.