Fraud­u­lent re­porters harm us all. Vig­i­lance is es­sen­tial

The Guardian Australia - - Front Page - Paul Chad­wick

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

Pho­to­graph: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

‘Last De­cem­ber the pres­ti­gious Ger­man mag­a­zine Der Spiegel re­vealed the ex­tent of the fraud of Claas Relotius, one of its star writ­ers.’

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