When Journalists Lie: Deception, Fabrication, And Plagiarism

Photos courtesy of Michiel Jelijs and President’s Charity Art via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Journalistic integrity isn’t a term for no reason. Though many debate the biases of modern media, generally speaking, journalists are obligated to be honest and ethical when presenting news, stories, or really anything to the public.

In today’s world, not many people trust the media. In 2009, only 3 percent of the public trusted journalists in Britain;  journalists were ranked in the bottom three of trusted professionals along with bankers and politicians.

In 2011, 75 percent of Americans said journalists can’t keep their facts straight, according to Pew Research.  That’s pretty bad.

Most commonly, distrust stems from bad fact checking or alleged biases — but there are also some instances when journalists and other writers have quite purposefully passed fiction off as fact. Here are some examples:

Benjamin Franklin wrote an article for the Boston Chronicle, and reported that American Indians were sending the British Royal Court hundreds of American scalps, outraging many and confusing the monarchy.

Under a pseudonym, he also published a prediction of the death of rival almanac writer Titan Leeds, followed by a fake death announcement confirming it. In response to Leed’s protests, he claimed the still-living man was an imposter until his actual death.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”aG5QRml0SFD9t4rq4T4I37ivk0nWRPbL”]Stephen Glass is a name synonymous with journalistic fraud. Why? In 1998, it was revealed that a whopping half of his published articles were fabrications, filled with entertaining yet made-up events, quotes, and characters that somehow made it through fact-checks unscathed.

The fraudulency of “Hack Heaven,” a story about a 15-year-old hacker, was revealed by a Forbes investigation.

Jayson Blair, former New York Times journalist, was busted in 2003 for widespread fabrication and plagiarism, and frequently claiming to have travelled to cities for reports that he wrote from home; he was caught filing business receipts in New York when he was supposed to be out of state. Lazy, thy name is Jayson.

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, rivaling New York newspaper owners in the 1890s, sought to one-up each other’s circulation by inflating their papers with made-up and sensationalized news stories. The style would later be called yellow journalism.

When the press blamed the sinking of a battleship on the Spanish, the story prompted U.S. intervention in Cuba in what became the Spanish American War.

Janet Cooke, former Washington Post journalist, published a story in 1980 called “Jimmy’s World” about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The story went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing the following year, which was later retracted. The issue? Cooke couldn’t find Jimmy, so she made the entire profile up.

Mike Daisey is an American writer and monologuist most known for “The Agony And The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” parts of which were broadcasted by This American Life. Details of this monologue, which explored globalization and Apple factory conditions in China, were revealed to be highly dramatized.

Daisey continued to perform the monologue after removing the bogus claims, but many remain critical of his methods which appear push the limits of non-fiction.

The takeaway

There are bad apples in every profession, certainly. Motives for lying in the world of journalism (and non-fiction writing) include laziness, ambition, or straight up trolling in the case of Benjamin Franklin. However, a majority of journalists are not this way (#NotAllJournalists might be an applicable hashtag here).

We can’t now be sure if and how journalists and other writers will regain the public’s trust. Just remember: It’s good to be critical. Look for valid sources behind questionable claims. The media isn’t perfect, but if readers hold authors accountable for their mistakes, the truth will find its way into the spotlight.

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Jennifer Markert