The credibility of ‘The New York Times’ is still reeling from the impact caused by the discovery of systematic plagiarism by one of its younger and brighter journalists, Jayson Blair. While the gray lady of the American press makes a severe self-examination to recompose her credit, many media have put their beards in soaking reviewing their journalistic practices.
Jayson Blair climbed the ‘Times’ beating marks until it was discovered that he told lies and fell from the top of journalism. Pandora’s box was uncovered: Blair dated his stories in cities distant from each other every other day, but that mobility of Correcaminos was no more than a fiction resource. The journalist was not moving from his apartment in New York from which he wrote his chronicles. For this, he copied sentences from testimonies that published or radiated other media as if he had obtained them himself. The gaps he could not cover with information filled them with his best resource: imagination.
Apologies and resignations
Blair has been criticized and despised by many colleagues for damaging the credibility of the journalistic profession, which is not in its best moments, and the bulwark of American journalism. The Times, on the other hand, apologized to its readers in four pages of the newspaper and opened a process of atonement that has been settled for the moment with the resignation of the director, Howell Raines, and the deputy director, Gerald Boyd.
The publisher Arthur Sulzberger made it clear at the time that Blair was at fault and that there was no need to “turn the newspaper into a demon”. However, it seems appropriate to act as devil’s advocate and see what Blair did to bring the most prestigious newspaper to its worst credibility crisis. The journalist’s sins were:
a) tell stories that happened in a place where he was not
b) include statements made to other media
c) reconstruct stories that he did not witness
Place of events or writing?
a) Traditionally it is understood that the information is dated in the place where the events occurred and, therefore, where the journalist who narrates them is. However, there are more cases in which a journalist writes from the newsroom and dates the information in the city where the news has happened. The telephone conversations have not made the displacement necessary and it is assumed that the news can be dated from another city can disorient the reader.
b) Before someone who makes statements there are usually many mics and notebooks taking notes. If a medium does not have them, they will be heard or received by the agency shortly. No media has the exclusive, so it is usually considered unnecessary to prove the source from which they come when the journalist who uses them has not been there to collect them. The practice extends in some cases when the phrase is extracted from a medium that has obtained it firsthand for their journalistic efforts.
Blair constantly used this resource to contribute to the impression that his information was first hand.
Tell me a story
c) Relating well is as important as obtaining information for a journalist. An increasingly common technique to illustrate to the reader how the events occurred is to reconstruct the story from the data that is available.
Blair turned this stylistic license into an alibi for his journalistic abuses and in his creative demeanor came to invent landscapes and conversations. The most famous is the description of the views from the porch of the paternal house of Private Jessica Lynch, rescued after being imprisoned in the invasion of Iraq. Any resemblance to reality was purely coincidental. He was never there.
d) Blair, reality did not spoil any good story in his science fiction journalism.
Blair’s crime is not that he committed common journalistic misdeeds and some original sins, which he did not justify, but turned them, with premeditation and premeditation, into a journalistic method. The problem is not to use some of these resources (except for d), but to make it clear to the reader that they are being used. If you read a statement, you should know if it has been made to the journalist who signs the information or is collected from other sources. If you read a reconstruction, let him know if the journalist describes what he has seen or what he has been told.
Out of sight
But before the reader, other journalistic eyes have reviewed that text. Any information goes through the supervision of different people in the newsroom until it is published. What is surprising about the Blair case is that it systematically recreates its information, that some of those controls gave the alert voice doubting its reliability and that the deception went so far.
No doubt, Sulzberger is right to point to Blair as guilty of discredit but not the context that caused it to happen. “Raines’ tough leadership style has not only played a role in creating the atmosphere that allowed Blair to do what he did without detecting it for a while, but distanced him from his team,” the newspaper said in the resignation information. .
The limit of more and better
Raines created a climate of high competitiveness and demand and promoted the young reporter who represented the values he wanted to spread. Blair was able to perpetrate plagiarism after another in that context. A context, on the other hand, not exclusive to ‘The New York Times’, but frequent in the journalism of haste today, in which every time we have to do more and better.
Convergence and Internet processes
In this situation, the newsrooms have found on the Internet a useful and fast source of data and information. However, on more occasions than desired, it ends up becoming the substitute for first-hand sources, calls and contrast of versions.
Doing more and better has a limit and beyond it you have to choose between one option or another. This choice is in many cases individual but, increasingly, corporate, especially at a time when many media engage in convergence processes, sometimes misunderstood as just a cost reduction system.
Filters and editorial procedures should allow journalistic norms not written in a transformation that many media around the world go through. But although the context is common it is not the way to correct it and in that the ‘Times’ has given a lesson in transparency that can help you retain the trust of your followers. Because, in the end, that is the main capital of newspapers. They live thanks to the credit their readers give them.