Following Jonah Lehrer's self-plagiarism scandal, The Wall Street Journal and Hearst have dropped their respective axes on a reporting intern and a reporter, for making up sources and quotes.On the one hand, it's good to see that there are still standards at publications in this era of journalistic flux, but, as far as the big picture goes, we're a bit worried about this recent rash of journalism crimes.
"Many of the names contained in the article about the re-opening of the 103rd Street Pedestrian Bridge in Manhattan were fabricated by reporting intern Liane Membis, and the quotes couldn’t be independently verified," reads a note posted by The Wall Street Journal in the place of what was supposed to be Membis' story. "Ms. Membis is no longer working at The Wall Street Journal." Another article Membis wrote during her short-lived internship now has this ugly note attached:
Two quotes in the original version of this article have been removed. The quotes were attributed to names that couldn’t be independently verified. The article’s author, Liane Membis, was a reporting intern who is no longer working at The Wall Street Journal.
Membis' story sounds similar to Paresh Jha, who was fired from the New Canaan News in Connecticut over the weekend. "We have found 25 stories written by Paresh Jha over the last year and a half that contain quotes from nonexistent sources," David McCumber, editorial director of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, said Friday in the paper's report. The problem, The New Canaan News explains, was discovered when unusually spelled names were fact-checked by the editing staff.
These sorts of stories bring out conflicting feelings. In some ways, our hearts go out to the Jha and Membis even though what they did is pretty much inexcusable. They lied, betrayed the trust readers put in them, embarrassed their publications and colleagues, and generally lowered the esteem of journalists everywhere. (Not an easy thing, as this Gallup poll that puts journalists a little above lawyers reveals.) And thanks to Google, it'll be hard to distance themselves from these scandals—especially in the eyes of their future employers.
But this whole profession of journalism is all about pressure, deadlines and being the first, best, and most-clicked on. And the temptation to cut corners is always there. Not to mention it's even more confusing when you have hero-editors like The New Yorker's David Remnick, telling you that committing a "journalistic misdemeanor" here and there won't necessarily get you into trouble. (Of course, being a superstar like Jonah Lehrer helps.)
No doubt, there are good, hard-working journalists out there that exponentially out number every the fabulists, plagiarists, and fakers out there. And we're guessing a majority of those journos have learned the hard way about a journalistic lesson through some sort of "teachable moment" along the way. We imagine that Membis and Jha have learned the seriousness of their fabrications as well. The shame is that they might not have an opportunity, like Lehrer will, to show us what they learned.
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