Digital transformation

Trust in Journalism: What happens when a reporter fabricates sources or quotes?

Facts. They are our currency in the news business, and even though the very idea of facts has come under fire among some public officials, the news industry takes great pride in providing true information to its readers.

So, what could be worse than finding out that a reporter has fabricated sources or quotes? Earlier this month, the Argus Leader in South Dakota retracted 11 stories with unverifiable quotes. The stories were written by an intern, who no longer works for the paper.

At GateHouse Media, our ethics training this year includes a case study about this very topic: What do you do when you discover a reporter has fabricated sources or quotes? It’s a scenario that you hope never to face as an editor.

One of our newspapers, the Cape Cod Times, was in the unenviable position of dealing with this situation about five years ago, and the way they handled it was textbook perfect. In fact, Poynter and a crisis management blog both commended the paper for how its leaders dealt with the situation.

Here’s exactly what they did:

STEP 1: THE INVESTIGATION

An editor became suspicious when reading a Veterans Day story and asked the long-time reporter for information on how to contact the source. She said she had thrown away her notes. Editors did a thorough investigation, going back to 1998, as far as the electronic archive would allow. They even spot-checked some clips before that.

They searched for sources using public-records databases, voter rolls, assessor’s records and online sources, such as Facebook profiles. They made phone calls. In all, they couldn’t find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998.

STEP 2: TRANSPARENCY

The editor and publisher signed a front-page story that described the investigation and apologized to readers. Here’s what Executive Editor Paul Pronovost wrote to readers at the time:

“Papers have personalities, and no two are exactly alike, but at the end of the day, facts are facts. And a good newspaper holds nothing more sacred than its role to tell the truth. Always. As fully and as fairly as possible.

“This is our guiding principle, so it is with heavy heart that we tell you the Cape Cod Times has broken that trust. An internal review has found that one of our reporters wrote dozens of stories that included one or more sources who do not exist.”

The story identified the reporter, who had worked there since 1981, and told readers she no longer worked for the paper. After the investigation, she admitted to fabricating some of the sources. The problems the editors found occurred mostly in feature stories.

STEP 3: REMOVING STORIES

The front-page article also described the steps the paper was taking next, including removing questionable stories or parts of stories from the web.

STEP 4: ETHICS TRAINING

As part of the investigation, editors also spot-checked other reporters’ work and didn’t find any issues. But the newspaper’s leaders committed to using the incident as part of an ethics training for the staff.

STEP 5: MORE SPOT-CHECKING

Readers also were assured that editors would do more spot-checking of sources to prevent this from happening again.

When the issue came up at the South Dakota paper earlier this month, Pronovost recalled the painful time in his newsroom’s history. He summed up his advice to any editor who faces this issue.

“The contract between news providers and their consumers is rooted in the truth of reporting,” he said. “We share stories, and readers believe them. When that trust is violated, we need to work to rebuild our damaged relationship.

“And the first step to making amends is through transparency. Come clean with what happened, apologize to your audience, and explain what steps you will take to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

One of the most important actions a news organization can take is to be transparent with readers. We demand that of public officials and others in leadership positions in our communities. When we come clean, even in a simple correction online or in print, we are showing readers how much the truth means to us. And that is leading by example.

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