Reporters Who Make Stuff Up
I’ve written a couple of blog posts this week about plagiarism. It’s a serious offense for writers—freelance or on staff—and has ruined many a journalist’s career.
You’d think these journalists would learn from the mistakes of others. But apparently not, as Hearst recently fired one of their award-winning reporters for making stuff up.
Paresh Jha was a reporter for the New Canaan News in Connecticut. He’s been fired for fabricating sources and quotes in at least 25 stories over the past two years.
“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. The problem was discovered when unusually spelled names were fact-checked by the editing staff. “When confronted, Jha admitted that he had fabricated the names and the quotes,” McCumber said.—NewCanaanNewsOnline.com
The stories that were discovered to have fabricated information have been taken off the weekly newspaper’s website.
In May, Jha won two awards at the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists Awards—a first place and a third place award in the community non-daily category.
Jha isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, journalist who resorts to making stuff up. One of my favorite stories about fabricating sources is the one of Stephen Glass, who worked for the Washington D.C. based-The New Republic. This was such a crazy story that they turned it into a movie—Shattered Glass—which came out in 2003.
I first watched this movie in graduate school. I was taking a media ethics course from none other than the guy who outed Stephen Glass. My professor, Adam Penenberg, was working for Forbes at the time and had been scooped on a story by Glass. “Hack Heaven,” written by glass, was the exact thing Penenberg covered for Forbes, and when Penenberg looked into the story, he realized the entire story had been fabricated by Glass. The unraveling of the tale is appalling, and makes for a good movie.
Glass was a rising star at The New Republic and worked there for three years. The scandal broke in 1998 and was found to have fabricated quotes, sources, even entire events in more than 25 stories during his tenure at the magazine. What bothered me in this story is that people were feeling bad for Glass because he was so young. It doesn’t matter how old you are—when you make stuff up and it gets published, it’s wrong. There is no excuse. These writers can’t feign ignorance, because they know what they did was wrong. Fabrication is lazy, dishonest, and against everything journalism stands for.
What strikes me as hilarious is that Glass ended up earning a JD from Georgetown University Law and works as a paralegal.
Another famous story involving make-believe is the one about Janet Cooke from The Washington Post. This scandal happened in 1980 and rocked the world of journalism to its core.
Cooke wrote a riveting story called “Jimmy’s World” about the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict. It was so riveting, in fact, that city officials in Washington D.C. went looking for little Jimmy to try to change his fate and save his life. Their efforts were fruitless, which led to allegations that the story was made up.
Cooke ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for “Jimmy’s World” but two days after the prize was awarded, the Post publisher admitted that the story was false. Cooke was outed by the editors of the Toledo Blade where she previously worked. When her background was looked into further, it turned out that she lied about having a degree from Vassar College and a master’s degree from the University of Toledo.
There are other stories like this of journalists who, for one reason or another, caved under the pressure and simply made stuff up. They have lost credibility, the one thing every news organization prides itself on.
While it may be tempting to change something or just add a little something extra to your stories, doing so could be detrimental to your career. It’s best to follow the straight and narrow path. As a freelancer, your reputation is one of your most important assets. If you don’t have people who can back you up, give you a referral, or trust in you, you don’t have work. Don’t sabotage yourself.