The Rise and Fall of a Star Reporter

May 14, 2004 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, May 14, 2004

The inside story on the recent USA Today reporting scandals
How is it possible that a star journalist at USA Today could get away with years of fraudulent news reporting? A team of journalists set out to find the reasons why procedural editing safeguards failed to detect the fraud. According to their report, special star treatment and favoritism led to a disregard of the most basic rules.

Last March, USA Today, America’s largest daily newspaper, ruefully announced that one of its reporters, Jack Kelley, was guilty of fabricating facts in at least eight major news stories. A team of journalists headed by three external media veterans had investigated over 700 of the offender’s articles over the course of seven weeks. It discovered that Kelley had lifted quotes and plagiarized material from other publications, lied in speeches, and attempted to mislead the investigative team. Kelley resigned from the newspaper in January. A year ago, The New York Times also dismissed one of their reporters, Jayson Blair, due to several fraudulent news stories. However, unlike Blair, Kelley is not a young, impressionable man, but a 43-year-old staff member, who had worked for USA Today for 21 years.

How could it get this far? Now USA Today has published a thirty-page report* uncovering the causes in the hope of regaining the public’s trust. The report unflinchingly exposes dysfunctional working conditions in the newsroom and issues recommendations to ensure these mistakes are not repeated.

The interviews conducted with over 70 current and former staff members of the paper, as well as with the fallen star himself, do not paint a pretty picture of the work climate, decision-making processes and communication culture in the newsroom of the newspaper with the widest circulation in the nation.

Aside from the fabrications already discovered, the investigation turned up many other misdeeds by the former Pulitzer Prize finalist. In the opinion of the authors of the report, red flags should have gone up much sooner. In fact, doubts and concerns about Kelley’s work had been expressed more or less openly on many occasions over the years, not only by members of staff but also by senior government officials. However, staff members who questioned Kelley’s factual accuracy were ignored by their editors, reprimanded or even insulted, and the clues were not passed on up the line for fear of reprisals. The report talks of a “climate of fear” at USA Today. The prevailing concern in the newsroom, it was found, was not what to offer the paper’s readers but to anticipate what editors wanted to hear.

New staff members were routinely warned by their colleagues not to criticize Jack Kelley. With his frequent appearances on television talk shows and podium discussions, Kelley – who internally was known as the “Golden Boy” – was the paper’s claim to fame. This and the fact that he was on a first-name basis with ranking executives of USA Today, and found ways to let his co-workers and supervisors know this, made him an untouchable in the eyes of most of his colleagues. It is this special star treatment and favoritism that, according to the report, led to a disregard of the most basic editing procedures.

USA Today’s policy regarding the use of anonymous and confidential sources is a particular area of concern for the authors of the report. It is phrases such as “according to reports from the State Department”, “intelligence sources tell USA Today“, or “insiders report”, which enabled Kelley, who would make use of them frequently, to place fictional or stolen quotes in the paper.

Back when USA Today was first launched in 1982, rules were laid down against the use of unnamed sources. This policy changed dramatically, however, in the mid-nineties when it was decided that more investigative reports and exclusives were needed to compete with rivals such as The New York Times or The Washington Post. As a consequence, the pressure on staff members to deliver so-called “high-impact” stories rose sharply, and citing unnamed sources has since been part of the newsroom culture at the paper. According to the report, the stricter guidelines introduced after Kelley’s first frauds were discovered did not change much and remain too lax. To remedy this situation, the report recommends that journalists always be required to disclose the identity of their sources to a ranking editor.

Other areas where the report identifies an urgent call for action include a defective system of communication both within and between the various sections – managed more like separate newspapers – a lack of transparency in the organizational structure, and poorly defined decision-making responsibilities. All this, it is argued, contributed to the fact that the machinations of a man, who said of himself in an interview that God had called him to proclaim truth, were not found out sooner.

(Translation: Fabia Zöllner)

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