Tuesday, May 10, 2005

And you can quote me on that

journalist under fire: Michelle Delio

Sharpen your stakes, folks--AP is reporting another print journalism scandal. My old press ethics teacher Adam Penenberg (who took down New Republic fraud Stephen Glass) has discovered that Wired News contributor Michelle Delio may have invented dozens of sources over the last two years.

Penenberg and his NYU grad school class (which would’ve included moi if the story had broke in the fall) reviewed more than 150 articles penned by Delio and were unable to track down approximately 24 sources. Most of the quotes involved did not materially affect the content of the story, but in at least four cases, the unverified quotes shaped the piece to a large extent. For example, in a piece about 9/11 rescue efforts, Penenberg was unable to locate several sources and a survival anecdote was proven to be apocryphal. In "Spyware on My Machine? So What?"—-a story about how the general public isn’t very concerned about spyware--none of the sources were located.

Reaction to the situation has been varied. The MIT publication Technology Review has taken down two of Delio's stories, while InfoWorld removed quotes from a few of her stories when it could not confirm sources.

For its part, Wired News released a statement saying that it wasn't retracting any of Delio's stories. In fact, it appears they're putting the onus on readers to call her bluff: "We are appending notes to the stories, indicating what we have been unable to confirm about them and editing them, as noted, where appropriate. By keeping these stories posted and clearly marked, we hope that our readers can help identify any sources whom we cannot track down."

Ah the wonders of the Internet—where journalists make you, the reader, do all the work! (This was the same solution given to me by Jeff Jarvis when I complained that bloggers weren't accountable to editors or fact-checkers: "If people find fault in a blog, they can post a message about it.")

Delio's response to Penenberg's findings is quite illuminating. (Notice she doesn’t outright deny the accusation of inventing quotes).
"I don't understand why my credibility and career is now hanging solely on finding minor sources that contributed color quotes to stories I filed months and years ago," she wrote. Delio said that among hundreds of articles she wrote for the organization, there "isn't one story that contains fabricated news."

What I find most intriguing is how the journalism establishment continues to pretend this kind of behavior is some sort of minor aberration conducted by a few lost souls. Whenever a Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass arises, my fellow journalists are quick to assign them drug problems or mental issues. "They couldn't just be self-serving liars, they must be troubled."

An example: One of my professors recently recommended True Story, a novel by Michael Finkel, who was fired from the New York Times for "passing off as true an article that was, instead, a deceptive blend of fact and fiction." (as per the book jacket). Said prof. pretty much forgave Finkel's deception as an understandable reaction to a high-pressure job environment. The poor kid!

The problem with dismissing these misdeeds or pathologizing disgraced journalists is that it conceals a very important fact: Every journalist, from the star reporter at the Times to a hack at US Weekly is tempted to make up quotes or fudge details. In fact, it's often writers at big, reputable publications that justify all kinds of behavior in pursuit of the all-important Story. (Jack Kelly, Judith Miller, et al).

But its not just the big guns. During the recent presidential campaign, I was greatly disturbed to see how many journalists had crowned themselves Bringers of the Higher Truth and were willing to ignore objectivity as an outmoded ideal if not an annoying hurdle to telling the story. I rankled when Pete Hamill told my incoming grad school class that our goal was "to change the world." Journalists, it seems, are catching up with our friends in the medical profession when it comes to developing God complexes. I think we'd be better off if journalism was viewed as a trade, like air conditioning repair or stenography, or rather than a divine calling.

Ironically, we spent very little time discussing plagiarism and other journalistic sins in Penenberg's press ethics class last fall. Instead, the focus for 14 weeks was on the misdeeds of the Bush White House and its attempt to stymie reporters. We spent 18 minutes discussing libel. I timed it.

Once, when I mentioned that I often found quotes in magazine stories to be too perfectly suited for the stories, my concerns were dismissed because my examples were from "pedestrian" publications like Details and New York magazine. Funny, I don’t remember seeing an iron curtain dividing Wired News from Marie Claire. The journalism elite need to look around and realize we're all in the same game.

Journalism schools should educate students that acts like Delio's are not aberrations, but temptations journalists face every day. And we need to stop marginalizing their importance, or else we’re encouraging a new generation of writers to commit the same misdeeds.

update: In case you need more evidence of how widespread the problem is, here's a story on a Pulitzer winner getting caught inventing quotes and subjects.


At 7:15 PM, Blogger TaraMetBlog said...

Thanks for the news and play-by-play. I just heard about the scandal, but I liked reading your analysis and post better than what I had originally read. Very fluid and informative...you should be a reporter ;)

Too bad we weren't in his class this semester!!

At 10:04 PM, Blogger mlliu said...

I didn't even hear about the scandal; I'm glad you brought it up because I think you're right that journalists tend to point their fingers at other journalists when such scandals break. There are unethical people in any profession so it shouldn't surprise us that there are unethical journalists. There are also problems with how media operates, problems that might tempt a journalist to make up sources or make up quotes. But that doesn't excuse unethical behavior, and journalists should watch out for it in their own work.


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