Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ethics in journalism: Taking the Columbia J-School challenge 

It seems that one or more students at the Columbia University School of Journalism cheated on the final exam of a course in ethics. Glenn Reynolds wrote that "you can't make this stuff up... Sadly, you don't have to."

Columbia has responded as any post-modern university would. Having detected cheaters in its midst, Columbia has decided that the scandal presents a teachable moment.

As Columbia University continues to grapple with allegations of cheating on a final exam in a journalism ethics course, students have been assigned to write an essay on an issue that parallels the one faced by their own professors.

The topic: What should a newspaper’s executive editor do after receiving “a tip from a credible source that one or more unspecified articles in recent editions of the newspaper contain fabricated material”?

The essay, which may be up to 500 words, is due Tuesday. No problem. I'll get it done before Desperate Housewives. Since it is the season of goodwill on Earth, I hereby authorize any enrolled Columbia journalism student to copy from this post, in whole or in part, with or without attribution, for incorporation into or substitution for the aforementioned assignment due Tuesday.


If the executive editor of a newspaper receives a "tip from a credible source that one or more unspecified articles in recent editions of the newspaper contain frabricated material," what should she [NOTE to Columbia J-School students: Be sure to sprinkle in feminine gender pronouns, even for generic nouns. Professors eat that shit up. - ed.] do?

As tempting as it may be for your exhausted executive editor to blow off such a generic allegation, which by its terms might apply to dozens of stories and every reporter on his her staff, if she actually has respect for her product -- the stories in her newspaper -- she will investigate the tip. Fortunately, this will be easy for her to do, because her mainstream media corporation has had to build a vast apparatus for enforcing corporate standard operating procedures (such as the policy against the intentional fabrication of "material"), collect anonymous tips about possible violations of those procedures, and investigate claims that the procedures have been violated, intentionally or otherwise. This apparatus, a dark alliance of "internal audit," the law department and human resources, has developed tremendous experience in getting to the truth of any matter that employees would prefer to cover up, whether relating to possible violations of the Sarbanes-Oxley law or all the various means by which one employee might sufficiently hurt the feelings of another that the media corporation will be found liable if it does not do something. The executive editor will quickly realize that this huge prosecutorial machine, which she has supported in her editorials as a means for investigating and punishing "corporate wrongdoing," is now quite conveniently at her disposal to investigate the "credible" tip that one of her reporters is acting without regard to editorial policy.

One of two things will happen. Either the investigation will uncover the "fabricated material" and the fabricator thereof, or it won't. If it fails, then there is no reason to believe that the tip -- which related only to "unspecified" articles -- is in fact credible. End of problem and end of essay, but for the small question of disclosure to the public. No, the investigation should not be disclosed, because there is nothing to say other than "we received an anonymous allegation that one or more of our stories contained an innacurate fact, but upon complete investigation were able neither to prove nor disprove the allegation." That sounds as idiotic as it is, and no business -- not even a newspaper -- should have to admit that there was a rumor it produced a defective product.

If, however, the investigators demonstrate that one of the paper's reporters has fabricated "material" in a published article, there is the question of discipline. Companies that take their products or services seriously -- say, medical device manufacturers, consumer products companies, or banks -- would immediately terminate any employee who did what this reporter has done, which is to adulterate or corrupt a product intentionally. Any employee who does that has not merely violated a company policy; he has attacked the foundation of the public's trust in that company's brand. For companies that take their products seriously, there is no remedy for this problem short of prompt termination. Does our executive editor take her product seriously? If so, she has no choice. If not, she will reveal that attitude when she fails to terminate the guilty reporter.

The final question, then, is the extent of public disclosure following the investigation. The newspaper must of course prominently correct the known factual inaccuracies. Whether it should report that the inaccuracies were the intentional act of the reporter rather than a failure of the organization depends on whether the newspaper genuinely takes responsibility for the work of its reporters. If it does, it should not publicly blame the inaccuracies on the terminated reporter. After all, if it takes responsibility for the work of its reporters, then the adulterated stories were a managerial failure as much as the work of the rogue. However, if the newspaper regards itself as a mere vehicle for the expression of its reporters -- and if it says as much -- then perhaps it has exalted the status of the reporter to such a degree that it is appropriate to blame the reporter publicly for the fraud.

In all cases, we ultimately know this much to be true: the executive editor's internal and external responses to the tip and the investigation will reveal a great deal about the newspaper's regard for the quality of its product.


WARNING to all Columbia journalism students who want to copy this post and hand it in on Tuesday: it is more than 500 words. But, presumably, you know how to edit.

MORE: Spelling error corrected per the Grouchy Old Man. All part and parcel of the distributed, open source editing that keeps the blogosphere sharp!


By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sun Dec 03, 10:15:00 PM:

I think in the interest of the public's right-to-know what their news purveyors are being taught, Columbia J-School should publish the three essays with the highest grade.  

By Blogger Grumpy Old Man, at Sun Dec 03, 10:22:00 PM:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

By Blogger Grumpy Old Man, at Sun Dec 03, 10:23:00 PM:

Half a point off for misspelling "adulterate."  

By Blogger ZaMoose, at Mon Dec 04, 06:09:00 AM:

There's also the matter of "frabricated[sic]" material. *grin*

Open source editing, huzzah! (Side note: consider switching to Firefox 2.0 for your browsing/posting - it uses an integrated spell-checker on every single text area, which means that I get nice MS Office-like red underlines every time I misspell something rather egregiously.)  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Dec 04, 06:24:00 AM:


I would love to switch to Firefox, but I usually blog off my company's laptop, and our IM group is all about Microsoft.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Dec 04, 09:21:00 AM:

If these were business students the MSM would have HUGE headlines on the front pages. Was it even mentioned in NYT?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Dec 04, 09:38:00 AM:

This story is the quintessential view of the MSM today: withOUT ethics, withOUT intelligence, and WITH utopian anti-American bias.

Can it get any worse? Stay tuned...  

By Blogger Marvin, at Mon Dec 04, 07:39:00 PM:

If Columbia has proof these students cheated - they should be expelled.
College students who get caught cheating should be expelled - period.
no second, third, fourth chances - they should be expelled.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Dec 04, 08:53:00 PM:

That was the policy at UT-Austin... it was enforced, too.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Dec 05, 11:40:00 PM:

There is absolutly no ethics in the liberal left-wing news media just look at all the crap they print and the mindless blabber from the talking heads  

By Blogger Unknown, at Tue Dec 12, 02:46:00 AM:

Yes, it is true...students cheat. Even at Brigham Young University two students plagerized the final paper in the journalism ethics course in their last semester of a four-year program! And yes...they got expelled...and no they didn't graduate. Ethics isn't something you can teach in a classroom. All an ethics class is is an opportunity to make future journalists aware of the ethical dilemmas that they might face and sensitize them to them.  

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