Some say the cardinal sin of journalism is plagiarism, but me? I say it’s fabrication.
I won’t deny that plagiarism, even self-plagiarism, is stealing, deceptive, and unethical – but at least the information you swiped is true (unless the person you stole from is, in fact, a liar, which complicates matters even further).
In a journalism lecture this week, we watched the 2003 film “Shattered Glass,” a movie about the infamous journalist-gone-rogue Stephen Glass from The New Republic. Now, I hear, he’s attempted to reshape his life by becoming a fiction author (something he should have pursued in the first place) and trying to earn a law degree. Some guy.
Besides getting lost in Hayden Christensen’s eyes (Oh Anakin, you’re my only hope), I was struck by the nerve of Glass – befriending the newsroom, enticing every one of his colleagues into a web of lies, lies, lies – only to find out that he’d been making up stories all along.
And you bought that.
Which gets into a whole other ethical debate of fact-checking and the perils of speedy journalism. While, yes, the fact-checking system is setup to detect minor spelling errors and consistency mistakes, it’s not designed (nor should it be) for those who write with deceit.
But still, why cut out that vital defense between writer and reader? I’d argue that fact-checkers should be the last to go – not the first – from the newsroom. We’ve seen one too many times a reporter taking liberties, knowing full well that his or her writing will not be checked for error or valid fact.
The speed at which journalism has accelerated to can also become a temptation for those writing on a tight budget. If it’s just you and your keyboard – and an hour till deadline – who can stop you from fabricating quotes, people, and therefore truths?
Fabrication cuts right to the bone of journalism – the heart of the craft. Journalists pride themselves on being truth-seekers and will often sacrifice time, money, and sometimes even their lives to get a story out into our information age.
Those journalists who fabricate stories seemingly spit in the face of those battling fatigue, jail time, and exile for the sake of democratic free speech. Think about THAT the next time you’re tempted to insert fiction into your nut graf.
At the end of all this, if you’re still enticed by made-up stories? Become a novelist…just don’t be a journalist.
Bethany N. Bella is studying journalism, anthropology, and geography at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Connect with her on Twitter @bethanynbella or browse her work at bethanybella.com.
The views expressed in this blog post are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital executive, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.