Truth Be Told: The Fight Against Plagiarism & Fabrication in Print Media

This is part one in a series of five, making up the entirety of BlueEyedPhoenix‘s senior project, an extensive research paper required for graduation at Purchase College, SUNY. The paper was written with footnoting, which cannot be duplicated via this format; however, all sources will be included at the end of the fifth chapter, upon publication here. Originally published at Backwash on May 24, 2006.

Chapter One: Introduction

In the heyday of “yellow journalism,” the name given to sensationalized news stories, as opposed to the traditional straightforward style of news writing, a great deal of journalists took tremendous pride in the fabrication of news stories.

The New York Sun published an article in 1835 which detailed the discovery of “man-bats” on the Earth’s moon. These bats were allegedly discovered by a man named “Sir John Herschel” who used a brand-new large telescope to view the moon. When the story was discovered to be nothing more than a ruse, the editors of the newspaper blamed it on a slow time for news. But instead of responding angrily, as would be the likely reaction today, the paper’s circulation remained high; most people didn’t seem to care that their valued daily was capable of deceptive “reporting.”

In 1889, when media conglomerate William Randolph Hearst first ran the headline “Boston is Destroyed, Another Earthquake Calamity in the East” on the front-page of his newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, he was conscious of the fact that the story was completely made-up and that he was intentionally deceiving his readers.

In fact, that entire day’s issue was filled with nothing but fantasy presented as reality, much of it based on the stories of the fiction writer, Jules Verne. While Hearst did print a miniscule disclaimer to protect himself against any potential legal complications, few people actually noticed the disclaimer, which was exactly what Hearst expected.

The subsequent issue of the Examiner reported the truth of the previous day’s issue, taking satisfaction in writing of one old lady, among others, who had personal ties to Boston residents, who “had been given a pleasing thrill of terror” when they read the story, which vividly described the destruction of the East Coast city and the loss of thousands of lives.

Since the days when powerful political players were running the majority of the United States’ newspapers, much has changed.

Although yellow journalism is still a flourishing and lucrative business concept, modern laws have helped to assure that real news is distinguished from false news. There is a clear distinction between papers running content based solely on verifiable information, and those running stories intended for the purpose of titillating readers.

While tabloid newspapers still account for a significant number of news publications in this country, legal measures have been taken to prevent front-page headlines from running as they did back during the days of Hearst’s reign over print media.

The less-than-credible publications, running headlines about wolf children, alien abductions, or dead celebrities brought back to life, are typically thought of as complete farces by the average person, otherwise they are targets for slander or libel (when they do attempt to run “real” stories).

What distinguishes Hearst and the tabloid press from the rest of the journalists is that ultimately, the former group tended not to take itself seriously; Hearst’s headline was labeled, albeit in the smallest of letterings, as a gag, and the modern tabloids, by-and-large, know they’re getting their “information” from less-than-credible sources.

However, it’s when a journalist, working for a credible news publication, decides to blur the line between news and fiction that problems arise.

The one ideal that journalists writing for credible news sources have prided themselves on, is their journalistic integrity – their abilities to effectively deliver the news to the masses not only in a timely manner, but in as truthful a means as possible.

When even a single journalist breaches this barrier of trust, taking the “easy road” so that he or she can make a front-page story without doing any of the actual work, it can cause cataclysmic repercussions of various natures throughout the media world. Whether the falsities begin the process of breaking down the levels of trust between those who report the news and those who ingest the news, or else become the catalyst for one or more libelous lawsuits, the results are never desirable by the majority.

Misinformation that manages to sneak its way onto the mass-printed pages of newspapers always proves detrimental, not only to the journalist responsible, but to the entire publication. The theory is that those in charge should be more than capable of filtering the facts from the fiction. When there is even the slightest amount of doubt, it is generally understood that strides should be taken to verify the information, or else the information in question should be cut until the time comes in which it can be verified.

For these reasons, the average journalist takes strides to assure that the sources they use are credible, the information they gather is verifiable, and that their editors will be able to back them up on both accounts with little-to-no questioning.

Breaches of trust have occurred a number of times since the heydays of yellow journalism in the early 20th century, each time inflicting damage to the public views of journalists.

In 1980, Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize award for her shocking expose’ on an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy for The Washington Post. Shortly after the prize was awarded, it was discovered that Jimmy didn’t exist. Cooke claimed that, though the Jimmy of her story didn’t exist, he was a character composite of others that she had actually met and interviewed. Cooke resigned from the Post and was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1998, Patricia Smith, an award-winning metro columnist for the Boston Globe, was asked to resign from her position after it was discovered that she had created a series of quotes from nonexistent people in order to stir the desired emotions from her readers.

Also in 1998, Stephen Glass, a young up-and-coming writer for The New Republic was fired for fabricating a series of stories during his brief employment with the small, but influential, magazine.

In 2001, Marcia Stepanek was fired from her position with Business Week for allegedly plagiarizing part of an article she had written on computer privacy. Though Stepanek refused to admit to plagiarizing, neither she nor her editors were able to prove that she had gotten her information on her own.

In 2003, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired for having plagiarized more than 30 articles during his tenure with the acclaimed newspaper, the most notable being a falsified in-person interview with the parents of Iraq war solider Jessica Lynch.

In 2004, Jack Kelley, a reporter for USA Today, resigned amidst an investigation into his work, which showed that a number of his stories contained fabrications, plagiarized quotations, and other stolen material.

Plagiarism and fabrication happen in not only the smaller publications, the ones with less intricate, if any at all, means of fact-checking, but it also happens in the larger publications, ones known throughout the world.

It’s the large-scale plagiarists and fabricators that truly help to damage the public’s opinions about news credibility, and it is as a result of these professional liars that news companies have begun to look into their fact-checking procedures, attempting to fine-tune the truth-seeking steps taken so as to prevent such events from happening again in the future.

This paper seeks to take a glimpse into the world of these fabricators by analyzing the patterns of fabrication, from the slight altering of a quote to the complete creation of people, places, and events.

Additionally, this paper will look into the various levels of plagiarism that exist in print media today, from the “borrowing” or lifting of single quotes that appeared in other stories, to the stealing of significant pieces of other journalists’ published writing.

These patterns will be further dissected by a series of case studies involving the more famous of fabricators, including the individuals’ thoughts on their actions after their secrets were exposed to the public.

Furthermore, this paper will look into the methods being taken by newspapers across the country to counteract potential fabricators before they have a chance to create a name for themselves based on falsehoods (a name that, while undesirable by most, can be an extremely lucrative one).