It's handwringing time in the journalism world again.
Over the weekend, IDG, publisher of InfoWorld, acknowledged that Randall Kennedy, one of InfoWorld's contributing writers, had misled some at the company about his involvement with Devil Mountain Software, a firm he wrote about and just happens to own.
While Kennedy told his InfoWorld editors about his interest in Devil Mountain, he did not tell them that he had created a fictitious chief technology officer for his company, a man named Craig Barth. Masquerading as Barth, Kennedy was able to mislead Gregg Keizer, a staff writer for sister IDG publication Computerworld, into believing that Barth actually existed. Keizer wrote nearly a dozen stories that included quotes from the fictitious Barth and in this way, Kennedy generated plenty of headlines for his company. The deception was brought to light as a result of an investigation by ZDNet.
Conflicts of interest are taboo at most traditional news organizations, and any writer who doesn't reveal such conflicts to readers is begging for a pink slip.
Ugly stuff. But before journalists start wringing their hands over the dangers that freelance writers, bloggers, and self-publishing have wrought upon their industry, it may be good to remember that liars, sneaks, plagiarists, self-aggrandizers, and incompetents have hardly been introduced to journalism by the Internet. In fact, they're an old tradition.
"These kinds of examples of journalism malpractice have their roots in much older forms of news and media," said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a leading U.S. journalism school. "The only thing that seems new here are the forms in which these transgressions are expressed...The classic forms of journalistic malpractice, going back decades, are making stuff up, ripping other writers off, and the third is peddling special interests without letting the reader know. They continue to exist to this day, and in all forms."
Reporters have fabricated facts or made up entire stories at some of the country's biggest newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The New Republic. In 1981, the Post had to return the Pulitzer Prize won by reporter Janet Cooke after it became apparent that she included a fictional 8-year-old heroin addict in a story.
The story of Stephen Glass, a New Republic magazine writer who, for three years, conjured up story facts, quotes, and even people, was chronicled in the movie "Shattered Glass." After an investigation in 1998, The New Republic found that 27 of Glass' 41 stories contained false information. In each instance of reporter misconduct, it took years for the deceptions to be uncovered.
In IDG's case, it's hard to weigh the damage. It's not clear how much of IDG's unwitting promotion actually benefited Kennedy's company or may have misled readers. What is certain is that IDG was betrayed and embarrassed by one of the company's nonstaff contributors.
IDG has severed ties with Kennedy, and managers have acknowledged in a blog post that Kennedy misled them. But is there anything IDG could have done to prevent the mess? Certainly, mistakes in judgment or bad behavior aren't limited to freelancers and never have been. Couldn't a staff writer from IDG or any other respected news organization have committed the same exact ethical lapse as Kennedy? Don't the benefits from incorporating new voices and opinions outweigh the risks?
In tech news, some of the biggest controversies over the past year can be traced to ethical lapses, while others can be traced to incompetence.
In March, a security expert writing for CNET wrongly reported the White House had "ditched YouTube" because of privacy concerns about its video player. The White House denied the claim, saying it was only experimenting with other video players and had continued to use YouTube. In October, a story published by a ZDNet blogger erroneously reported that Yahoo had turned over names of protesters to Iranian authorities during civil unrest in that country.
Two weeks ago, TechCrunch discovered that a teenage intern had told companies he would write about them only if they agreed to provide him with a new laptop.
In each case, the news outlets quickly fired or severed ties with the blogger or writer in question--just as IDG did. In each case, editors went straight to the public with apologies and disclosed details about what occurred.
When Larry Dignan, ZDNet's editor in chief, explained to readers what went wrong with the Yahoo story, he wrote: "Blog networks still need to follow journalism 101, and Yahoo should have been called." Michael Arrington, co-editor and founder at TechCrunch, wrote in his note to readers about the fired intern: "I promise that we will always maintain complete transparency with you on how we operate, even when it isn't such an easy thing to do."
A big part of the problem is that news organizations today have less time and fewer resources to, as Clark put it, "get eyes on the copy."
The 24-hour news cycle demands that Web sites must publish at any hour, and that means less time for editors to evaluate stories. The alternative--taking time to vet stories more thoroughly--may mean getting beat by competitors who may not be wringing their hands over these kinds of concerns. And good editing won't typically catch a reporter who is willing to make up sources or facts.
According to Clark, anyone serious about reporting the news should establish a set of standards and practices that full-time staffers, freelancers, and anybody else publishing on the site knows and follows. He illustrated his point with an analogy.
"If I'm (operating) a bank, I don't think I'm going to send my tellers to seminars in order that they should learn not to steal from the till," Clark said. "That's kindergarten knowledge, basic morality stuff. What I'm going to say to Tom or Janice is, 'Look at that camera over there. It follows every transaction that you have. Remember Morris, the guy who worked here five years ago, the guy now in federal prison? He didn't follow the rules.'"