The Digital Journalist

Get it Right!

by Cynthia Gorney

The following open letter to all you fine folks is appearing this month, in slightly different format, as a sidebar to American Journalism Review's cover story about the recent spate of newsroom plagiarism and invention disasters. As we start in on the ethics portion of Law & Ethics, I pass this on to you here in the ardent hope that everything I say in it seems so obvious that you can't imagine why somebody would take the time to write it down. See you in class!

March 2001

Dear J-school students,

Some weeks back, as you may have read, the San Jose Mercury News fired a young reporter, who was a recent graduate of another journalism school. The offense: impressing his editors with an evocative story, about poor San Francisco families living in residential hotels, which ran with a nice display photo before the editors realized that the first five paragraphs copied almost sentence for sentence a story that had run a month earlier in The Washington Post.

One of our own alumnae, now at the Mercury News, sent me transcripts of the two stories. They're not identical. The opening families are different (although each includes a mother who awakens before dawn with two daughters beside her in the hotel room). The prose is slightly tweaked, rearranging sentences only with the addition of an extra adjective or two: "half-century" becomes "half a century," "working men who streamed into the city" becomes "solitary working men who streamed into the city," and so on.

I don't know this young reporter, and I ought not presume what was in his head as he sat down to compose his piece. But I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going to guess that he said to himself: This is a good story, we crib ideas from each other all the time, I'll go down to one of those hotels and find a family myself. Then, I'm going to guess, he said to himself: I'm not exactly copying the Post reporter's language--I'm "influenced" by it. And this Post guy is a veteran; he must know better than I do how to put together a lead for a story like this. And it's a public service to air such an important issue. And I'm scared I'm not doing well enough at this big metropolitan paper. I need an eye-catching byline.

This is charitable, of course. It's possible that the reporter was just dishonest and thought he could get away with it. But this is the third Northern California newspaper writer in recent months to be found by his own editors to have broken rules so fundamental that most of us don't even bother articulating them for you. In the interests of clarity, and with a heavy heart, I articulate them now:

Don't steal.

Don't lie.

Don't make things up and pretend that's reporting.

You didn't need me tell you this. You came here knowing those rules; you learned the first two when you were growing up, and you thought about the third, perhaps without realizing that's what you were doing, when you decided you wanted to work someday as a journalist. You know that for most of us one of the greatest pleasures in working as a reporter is the lifetime license to learn--to pick up the telephone, or knock on the door, and say: Tell me about this. Explain this to me. Help me get it right.

Exactly how you get it right, in the big unruly sense--how you go about your reporting, how much you disrupt people's privacy, how you weigh the harms and benefits of publishing or not publishing--those are the honorable arguments we'll take on together as we start up ethics class this week. But whether you get it right, and do it your own hardworking self--that's not actually up for debate.

You have to want to get it right. Getting it right has to matter to you so much that if you're going to lie awake at night worrying (which we do a lot, in this line of work, so you might as well get used to it now), getting it right is what you worry about. Am I sure of my reporting? Could I have misinterpreted what that guy said? Did I check the names, the statistics, the background section with all the dates in it? These are your 2:00-in-the-morning questions, because if this is what you want to do for a living all you're really going to produce, when you think about it, are sentences--sentences that are going to be read or listened to by people who don't know you and are trying to trust you anyway.

That's such an unsettling proposition that when you're starting out it's hard to grasp it in its entirety, but it's true. Perfect strangers out there are willing to sit down for a few minutes and take in the sentences you write. Which brings us to the ripoff problem: they have to be your sentences, not somebody else's, and even though you knew that already there are going to be times when the specifics of Don't Steal look a little fuzzy to you. Where exactly is the influence line? What's chasing a story idea and what's lifting somebody else's work? When do you have to attribute, and when can you incorporate wire service copy or other existing material? Can I accuse you of plagiarism if I find the phrase "the ripoff problem" in your copy?

If you're worrying about these questions, good. You should. Here's what else you should do, as soon as the faintest flicker of is-this-right starts up in the back of your brain: Listen to it. Run a fast Golden Rule check on yourself: How would I react if somebody else were doing the same thing to me?

Then go find a rabbi: a teacher, an editor, a senior reporter at work. Make sure you're going to somebody who pays attention to the ethical conversations going on around the building--if you're looking around your newsroom for someone to talk to, don't seek out the cynic who's famous for making fun of everybody's moral codes. Talk through every detail of the situation that's stumping you. Pay attention to the details you find yourself sort of not wanting to mention. Mention those first.

And take it one level up if necessary, both for a second opinion and for assurance that your quandary will not come as dismaying news when it's too late for a mid-course fix. People are very damn edgy about bad behavior just now, and rightly so; if you mess with the big rules you will get caught, sooner or later, and it isn't just the firing and the blacklisting I'm talking about here, but that creepy period beforehand when you'll be the only one who knows what you did and how much of your own integrity you shoved aside to do it.

With affection, and abiding faith in every one of you,

Cynthia Gorney

Cynthia Gorney is associate dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She is the author of Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, and was a staff writer for 16 years at The Washington Post, serving as a metropolitan reporter, South America bureau chief, and West Coast-based correspondent for the Style section.