From the very beginning of any journalism class, many if not all journalists are taught what they owe to society, and if what they are presenting to the public is ethical or not. Journalists are taught that they owe the public the truth, all the facts of a story, and they should be representing the voiceless in their stories. These all seem like basic, common sense roles every journalist should know before they commit to the job. However, as time goes on we see that it evidently is not a task that is easy to fulfill by every journalist. Many journalists, especially journalists that are just starting their career, feel the need to blur the line between what is ethical and unethical in journalism. Whether it is for fame, feeling under pressure to get a story in, or feeling like an underdog in their field, many journalists have put their career at risk by making the one mistake they would regret for the rest of their lives, lying to make a story sound better than it truly is. Every journalist should know that lying is an unforgivable offense when it comes to writing their stories. Not only is it unethical, but if the decision is made to lie in article to give it more “color”, you are disrespecting your role to society, and what the public deserves to know. Unfortunately, this is an offense that has happened multiple times with journalists. You are left to wonder, what exactly happens in every journalist’s world that many of them feel the need to lie, and put their whole career at risk?
One journalist who made the mistake of lying in their stories was Stephen Glass. Glass was a young journalist, working for The New Republic at 25 years old. During his time with The New Republic, Glass wrote 41 articles. Many of his stories grew to fame, as a lot of them contained material no one else could receive. Along with his articles, Glass’ name also achieved fame. He was a young writer at a highly respected newspaper, writing articles that veteran writers couldn’t receive information on. After writing many of these articles, Glass was finally caught lying. He had made up events, places, and even people to make his stories sound more interesting. Out of his 41 articles, 27 of them were found to contain fabricated material. What would drive a journalist to do this? Why would any journalist feel the need to lie so much? CBS news writer, Rebecca Leung wrote an article on Stephen Glass’ interview with 60 minutes after he was caught lying.
During the interview, Glass stated, “I wanted a story that I thought would be the perfect story. And that the readers would most enjoy to read.”
Leung goes on to tell how Glass now lives in New York City hoping he can be admitted to the state bar, but there are questions about his morals in practicing law. While Glass was trying to entertain his readers by giving them an enjoyable story, he was actually hurting them. He was feeding them untrue information, which negatively impacted their knowledge as to what was actually going on in the world.
Glass has made multiple attempts to apologize to all of the businesses he wrote fabricated information about. According to the New York Times, Glass has even sent a check of $10,000 to Harper’s Magazine for a fabricated article he wrote about them. However, everyone is left to wonder if there was a second motive behind doing that.
“The magazine’s publisher, John R. MacArthur, has been asked more than once to vouch for Mr. Glass as a candidate for admission to the California bar,” says Giulia Melucci, a spokeswoman for Harper’s Magazine.
Is Glass really sorry for his actions? Or is he just apologizing in hopes that MacArthur will one day vouch for him? Even if Glass answered that question himself, would you really trust him to give you the truth? Glass’ actions were very unethical when it came to his role as a journalist.
Stephen Glass is not the only journalist to make the mistake of lying to the public. A young reporter named Jayson Blair committed the same act while working for The New York Times. Blair started writing for the paper around 22 years old, and continued to do so for four years. Like Glass, Blair wrote many articles that were recognized across the country for its content. However, according to The Times, many of Blair’s colleagues had complained about all of the “mistakes” they had found in his articles. Blair was put on a leave, and given a stern warning about being more careful with his articles. When Blair returned from his leave, The New York Times reported, “the newspaper's top two editors — who said they believed that Mr. Blair had turned his life and work around — had guided him to the understaffed national desk, where he was assigned to help cover the Washington sniper case.” While Blair might’ve assumed he was in the clear, his colleagues were still skeptical and launched an investigation into his work. By November of 2002, the “mistakes” that were first found in Blair’s work were actually found to be fabrications of people, quotations, and places he claimed to be at. At least 36 of the 73 articles Blair wrote were found to have some sort of fabrication contained in them. Blair was terminated from his job, and later did a press conference style interview with a class of Duke undergraduates about the incident. When asked why he did it, Blair said it started out small, then escalated very quickly.
“Once you do something that crosses any ethical line… it is easy to go back and do it over and over,” Blair said.
“I danced around it and then crossed it and had a real hard time coming back.”
This is also what happened with Stephen Glass. Both of these young journalists saw how easy it was to lie about one simple quote, or one fact of a story, and continued to do it until they were making stories up entirely. Both Blair and Glass have ruined their journalism careers permanently by making the decision to lie to the public instead of giving them what they deserve: the truth.
While Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair wrote multiple stories before they were caught lying, sometimes it only takes one story before you are caught. Janet Cooke, a former journalist of The Washington Post wrote only one single story before she was found to be a fraud. Cooke’s false story was named “Jimmy’s World”, and was about an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy who was addicted to heroin. The story gained national attention, Cooke was praised for her work, and eventually the story won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. After this story went public many people felt heartbroken for this little boy, child services were out looking for Jimmy and his parents, and even cops were trying to find him. After a long interrogation, Cooke finally admitted to the story being fake, and The Post had to give the Pulitzer Prize back. While Cooke may have thought at the time that this story would not actually hurt anyone because all of the people in the story were false, it had a huge impact on readers. Cooke’s duty as a journalist is to inform the public of the facts, and to give kids like Jimmy a voice, someone who wouldn’t have had a voice in everyday society. Cooke making up this story was completely unethical. Every responsibility she had as a journalist was disrespected by writing this story. The Post wrote an article on Janet Cooke years later, giving her an opportunity to explain why she wrote the false story.
Howard Kurtz, writer for The Washington Post, states Cooke’s argument for the story. “…she did not invent "Jimmy" to win a Pulitzer or make a big splash; she was just desperate to get off The Post's Weekly staff, which she described as "the ghetto." Cooke was also trying to get away from her Weekly editor, whom she despised,” he says.
Cooke was only 26 years old when the story was first published. Before the story was even created, Cooke was not really known at The Washington Post. She wrote articles, met the deadlines, but did not stand out to anyone important. This is something that is common for young journalists. It takes years of practice with writing and interviewing for every journalist before they are truly recognized for their work. Instead of putting in the time and effort like every other journalist, Cooke wanted to skip those years of practice, and be recognized as a great writer very early in her career. However, what she failed to realize is that if she put as much effort in as she did creating a fake story into a real story, there is a very high chance that the real article would have received just as much recognition, and she could have earned and kept a higher position in her job. Feeling pressure to do great in your career is not an excuse to go against the ethical practices that come with the job of being a journalist.
Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Janet Cooke all shared something in common when it came to be being journalists: they all wanted to be recognized for their work. Each of these journalists wanted to stand out, and felt the pressure to do great at such a young age. Glass wanted to entertain his readers, Blair was caught up in lying just because he got away with it once, and Cooke wanted to be put in a higher position at her job. Each reason listed here are all different, but they all were selfish acts for each journalist to commit. Every journalist’s job is to tell the all the facts, tell the truth, and inform the public as to what is going on in the world. Those are the ethical practices of each journalist. Glass, Blair, and Cooke all proved they are unethical when it comes to being a journalist. Regardless of the reason as to why they did it, each one of these writers proved to everyone publicly that they cannot be trusted to execute the job of a journalist, and are incapable of carrying out their ethical duties.