Fraudulent reporters harm us all. Vigilance is essential
The name Claas Relotius recently joined those of Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair in the list of reporters whose deceptions massively harmed esteemed publications, and journalism more generally. Similarities in the cases offer lessons.
Last December the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel revealed the extent of the fraud of Relotius, one of its star writers. Disclosures continue, but it is already clear that large parts of his award-winning reporting were simply made up.
Cooke’s fabrication in 1980 of a story of a child heroin addict led the Washington Post to return a Pulitzer prize. Blair’s deceptions during 2002-03 resulted in the New York Times appointing its first public editor, a role similar to readers’ editor. There are other less spectacular cases, and the Guardian is not immune.
The Der Spiegel case is particularly harmful, in place and time, as Guardian correspondents noted: “In recent years, the anti-immigration group Pegida and elements of Alternative for Germany (AfD) have resurrected the Nazi-era slur of Lügenpresse (“lying press”) to denigrate mainstream journalism they claim does not represent the world as they see it.”
The US ambassador to Germany was quick to allege an anti-American institutional bias, a charge Der Spiegel rejected while also publishing the ambassador’s letter.
In cases such as this – that is, intentional fabrication as distinct from making errors or being misled by sources – trust suffers two blows. Readers can wonder about the trust they are asked to extend to all journalism, especially the anonymously sourced kind. And the trust that editors routinely and unavoidably place in reporters is shaken.
All three cases share at least two similarities. Key editors were insufficiently wary of the precocious successes of Relotius, 33, Blair, 27, and Cooke, 25, while they were providing what editors were pleased to be receiving. Colleagues who had doubts were either hesitant to speak up or, when they did, were not listened to seriously enough. Insofar as lessons can be generalised from these episodes, they include: beware the temptation to loosen standard checks and balances; listen for unease among colleagues – discount for envy perhaps, but stay aware that whistleblowing is difficult inside any professional culture; break the story yourself – rebuilding trust is harder if others disclosed your problem, and the fact that you were aware of it; conduct an authentic investigation and publish the result; review systems, not just individuals; apologise, without overdoing it; follow up, well after the fuss has died down and after any recommended reforms have been implemented, to see what has changed and what has returned to the way it was.
Readers can wonder about the trust they are asked to extend to all journalism, especially the anonymously sourced kind
‘Last December the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel revealed the extent of the fraud of Claas Relotius, one of its star writers.’