Jayson Blair scandal: larger lesson for America’s news media

Sunday, June 1, 2003

Jayson Blair committed journalistic crimes, but his bosses at The New York Times never had a clue.

Jayson Blair’s fabrications as a reporter landed him on the cover of Newsweek and undermined the credibility of one of the world’s most respected newspapers.

The scandal has ignited talk radio, fueled by those who are pleased to see the comeuppance of the “liberal” Times. Others have questioned whether Blair, an African-American, was given too many second chances because of a newsroom version of affirmative action.

Largely lost in the debate and discussion, though, is a larger lesson for America’s news media: The best way to ensure the integrity of your newspaper is to listen carefully and responsively to your readers and the people who appear on your pages.

There are many who could have alerted the Times to Blair’s deceitful reporting. Some tried:

  • The chief prosecutor in the Maryland sniper shootings held a news conference late last year to say that Blair’s reporting on the investigation was “dead wrong.”
  • The athletic director of Kent State University made more than a dozen calls to The New York Times to complain about a quote fabricated by Blair. No one returned the calls, according to the Los Angeles Times.
  • The Los Angeles Times also reported that the family of a soldier wounded in Iraq never bothered to correct a story with a fictional reference to a girlfriend back home. “You expect people are going to get misquoted, or quoted out of context,” the soldier’s mother told the newspaper.

What does it say about a newspaper when it hears allegations of fabricated quotes directly from the sources and then either fails to respond, or worse yet, rewards the reporter responsible?

What does it say about a newspaper when it publishes a false story and people fail to challenge it because they fear being intimidated or expect to be ignored?

This isn’t just about The New York Times. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll issued this week says that only 36% of Americans have confidence in the news media.

That’s not a backlash from the Blair scandal. That’s a reflection of how little Americans trust the news media overall.

It’s the nature of newsgathering to focus on immediacy and breaking developments. But the true test of a great newsroom is whether it cares as much about yesterday’s paper as today’s.

That’s not easy. Given extraordinary time pressures and the challenge of beginning each day with dozens of blank pages and the need to fill them by nightfall, most newspapers rarely reflect on how well they served readers the day before.

In my colleague Robert Haiman’s handbook on Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists, he detailed readers’ frustration with trying to set the record straight.

“Readers said that they had heard the top editor, speaking at a local civic club luncheon, say that the newspaper wanted to be right and that it welcomed calls about errors and requests for corrections. But when the readers attempted to do so they encountered a staff that seemed unaware of what the editor had been saying around town.

“Several said they had tried to get corrections published and found it extremely difficult to even get to someone who would listen to them. They described a tortuous process of repeated telephone calls, being passed from person to person, being asked the same questions repeatedly, being told to call back, having to deal with a voice-mail system. Often, they said, it ended with the decision to just give up,” Haiman wrote.

Good newspapers find a way to solicit reader feedback and hold themselves accountable. Some newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, have elaborate error-tracking programs, attempting to identify every mistake and determine its cause. Other newspapers send follow-up letters to sources, asking, “Did we get it right?”

Another approach is to employ a readers’ editor who fields concerns and complaints and channels them to newsroom decision makers.

In some cities, of course, you don’t have to build elaborate programs to know what readers are thinking. They just pick up the phone and let you have it — if you take the call.

All of this requires commitment — and a thick skin. But newspapers that respond promptly to reader complaints and publish corrections when warranted truly honor the First Amendment.

These are the newsrooms that win a community’s trust. These are the newsrooms where Jayson Blair would have been fired 50 corrections ago.