When Disaster Strikes
How should a news organization respond to credibility crises over plagiarism, fabrication and the like? Editors, some of whom have been there, offer hard-earned wisdom on what to do.
By Don Campbell
Don Campbell is a lecturer in journalism at Emory University and a former Washington reporter, editor and columnist.
ROBERT ASHLEY WAS WITH his wife and 10-year-old son in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a Saturday night in May when the phone rang, interrupting his reading.
Ashley, editor of the Owensboro, Kentucky, Messenger-Inquirer, has seen a lot in his 30 years around newsrooms. But that hardly prepared him for what City Editor Mike Alexieff had called to tell him. An M-I reporter, Kim Stacy, had asked her boss to remove from the Sunday edition her latest column in a series describing her battle with terminal cancer. The series had moved many readers, including cancer survivors and relatives of cancer patients who said her account had made it easier for them to cope. Now Stacy wanted the column spiked, because, she said, she didn't have cancer.
"I was incredibly angry," Ashley recalled months later. "I was angry it happened. Angry at her. Wondering if somehow we could have prevented this from happening."
But he didn't panic. He told Alexieff to have Stacy in his office at 10 a.m. Monday. He tracked down his publisher, T. Edward Riney, in Lexington, Kentucky, and filled him in. Then he went to sleep.
Late the following day, he confronted the decision he knew he had to make. "My first reaction had been to fire her," Ashley says. "But flying home Sunday night, I considered the possibility of letting her resign. My anger was fighting my compassion. Maybe she had AIDS [she had claimed that after denying she had cancer, but later admitted that that, too, was a lie]. By Monday morning, however, I was convinced there was nothing to be gained by offering to let her resign."
Ashley moved quickly. A meeting with the publisher. A call to a lawyer for the A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the 32,000-circulation M-I. A half-hour meeting with Stacy that included Riney, the human resources director and a couple of other editors--where she was fired. A walk up to the newsroom to tell the staff, where the reaction was "anger and stunned disbelief." A decision to run both a front-page news story and a statement of apology from Riney.
"Credibility is earned over time," the publisher told M-I readers the next morning. "Facing this situation head-on and regaining trust with readers is paramount to all of us."
In journalism's Credibility Crisis Hall of Fame, the Owensboro entry won't merit a prominent display. It lacked the intrigue, indecision and near-paralysis that marked some aspects of several high-profile newspaper ethics cases in recent years. It was not complicated. It was over quickly.
But it carried some simple lessons for a profession seemingly obsessed with credibility but with few guidelines on what editors should do when the ethics bandwagon breaks an axle.
The rash of credibility lapses in Boston, Cincinnati, San Jose, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Owensboro coincides with efforts by several journalism organizations, led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, to raise ethical awareness in the newsroom. But when prevention fails and an ethical virus strikes, what do you do?
There's no one-cure-fits-all prescription, but a rough consensus emerges when you talk to industry leaders, consultants, academics and editors who've been through the fire.
It is this: As an editor, you've got to be able to deal with all the "stakeholders" in the crisis--the wayward employee, your staff, your readers, other media and interested groups--while putting out the best daily newspaper you can, all the while keeping your sanity. It can test your leadership like nothing you've faced before.
THE FIRST DECISION you're apt to face in an ethics uproar is what to do with the villain: dismissal? suspension? demotion? reassignment? probation? But unless he or she has admitted guilt or the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming, you will need to gather a lot of facts before deciding. And you will be wise to seek advice from lawyers and professional colleagues.
"An editor is foolish who doesn't test his own judgment with outsiders," says Gannett news executive Lawrence K. Beaupre. Beaupre was editor of the chain's Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998 when it renounced a hard-hitting investigative series on Chiquita Brands International because one of the authors had stolen Chiquita voice-mail messages (see "Bitter Fruit").
"A lot of decisions as editors you can make on instinct," says Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian. "This is not one of them. You've got to slow down...talk it through. Be deliberate and cautious. Challenge your initial assumptions."
Rowe, who as president of ASNE in 1997-98 launched a major credibility project, argues that the quality of the process you follow in making a crisis decision is very important internally. "It helps you to establish your culture," she says.
Some decisions are easier than others. If you strongly suspect a reporter or columnist of plagiarism or fabrication, you know you've got to keep his or her stuff out of the paper until the matter is resolved.
If the employee admits guilt and expresses remorse, you'll probably react with more compassion than if he or she denies everything and threatens legal action.
At the Indianapolis Star/News last summer, Executive Editor Frank Caperton opted to suspend and demote his veteran TV columnist, Steve Hall, after he was found to have plagiarized material in a column (the problem was detected early enough that the column was never published). But Caperton left himself "some room," as he later described it, by announcing that Hall would be fired if further examples were found--as they soon were (see Bylines, October).
You may also be torn over whether to let someone resign rather than be fired. "I prefer giving someone the option to resign," says Bob Giles, the former Detroit News editor and publisher who runs the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center. "It's cleaner that way, if you can craft an agreement so that they can't come back and sue you later.... It gives them a chance to get on with their lives."
The difficulty of the case, newsroom veterans agree, also will depend on the employee's status. While sanctions should fit the offense and be imposed equitably, a public relations dynamic intrudes.
You might quietly get rid of a reporter in a boondocks bureau with no one ever the wiser, but you'll not have that luxury with a star reporter or popular columnist. In the latter case, you can be sure you're going to have to explain yourself to your staff and the public--and probably be challenged by both.
The best advice in dealing with your staff is to tell them as much as you can, as soon as you can, without holding anyone up to ridicule, betraying confidences or further undermining the credibility of your organization.
"The staff has a right to know a lot," says Mark Nadler, who held senior editing posts at the Wall Street Journal and in St. Paul and Chicago before becoming a communications consultant. "The staff should know everything the public will know, and know it before the public knows it. Attempts to hush things up lead you into trouble."
In Indianapolis, where Caperton notified the Newspaper Guild and the staff by e-mail immediately after suspending Hall, the biggest dissent came from employees who thought Hall should not have been given a second chance (which soon became moot). Neither Hall nor the Guild fought his suspension or dismissal, although Hall later was highly critical of Caperton for making his initial punishment a front-page event.
"I think it's more challenging to deal with staff than with the public," says Boston Globe Editor Matthew V. Storin. "You've got to be very attentive to staff. It will take them a lot longer to get over it."
He recalls that in the second of the Globe's major ethics brouhahas in 1998--the forced resignation of Mike Barnicle over questionable columns--he had two full staff meetings, one before the resignation, which Barnicle attended, and one after (see Bylines, September 1998). "Both were tense but seemed to serve a good purpose," Storin says. "Of course there were many conversations with smaller groups and individuals. I kept talking about it long after, and finally some of my colleagues told me I should stop bringing it up. Everyone else had moved on, they said."
Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor William F. Woo, now a Stanford professor who also teaches an ethics class at the University of California-Berkeley, favors a cautious approach when dealing with the staff.
"You need to be extremely careful in laying out the problem clearly, while at the same time being sensitive to the harm that may be done to the credibility of sub-editors who dealt properly and in good faith with the employee in trouble," says Woo. Checking with a lawyer on questions of due process and other legal aspects, he adds, are simply part of "looking before you leap."
OK, YOU'VE FINESSED THE staff problem. Now how much do you tell your readers? Opinions range from total disclosure to what was known in the Watergate era as a "modified limited hangout."
"We're more and more into airing our dirty linen," Rowe says. "Editors feel more and more required to do mea culpas on the front page in large type. But it's a personnel matter, and I lean more toward asking ourselves: What do we owe our readers? You need to have significant discussions with the staff. You have to balance what you owe the reader versus unnecessarily hurting the reputation of the employee and unnecessarily damaging the institution you work for."
Beaupre echoes that theme: "I'd be relatively cautious in disclosure. There's a tendency in our business to jump on the failings of those in our business--there's too much self-justification in the guise of candor."
Woo leans in the other direction. "Disclosure is the universal disinfectant," he says, but adds that the tone of the apology and explanation is important. "You don't want to don sackcloth and ashes. Be straight with the reader. Let them know you're going to try to be sure it doesn't happen again. Don't be sanctimonious."
"I'd err on the side of telling more rather than less," says Joann Byrd, the former Washington Post ombudsman who now runs the editorial page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "We need to let readers know how and why we do things, our rationale for treating people the way we do."
The Arizona Republic published a 60-inch story explaining why it fired columnist Julie Amparano in August after failing to find many of the people she had recently written about. Executive Editor Pam Johnson says it would have been fundamentally "dishonest" of the newspaper not to tell the readers what happened and why (see Bylines, October).
"We as editors have a relationship with readers and our communities that right now is vulnerable," she says. "You don't build that into a stronger relationship without being straight with your readers...whether it's just explaining our standards and the way we do things or taking a case like this to our readers and explaining it."
Jerry Ceppos, the former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, made headlines nationwide by conceding nine months afterward that his paper made mistakes in its controversial "Dark Alliance" series on the CIA and crack cocaine (see "The Webb That Gary Spun," January/February 1997). He says that the way editors see their obligation to readers is one area where newspapers "truly have improved" in recent years.
"It might have been easier a few years ago, when readers wouldn't be told about the inevitable dilemmas that face editors," says Ceppos, now Knight Ridder's vice president/ news. "But as long as we demand the inside secrets of government and of other businesses, we owe the same inside information to our readers."
Just how much importance the public attaches to disclosure and apology is debatable. On the one hand, many agree that how a newspaper or any institution reacts to a crisis can ultimately make a bigger impression on the public than the original sin.
Both the Freedom Forum's Giles and Bob Steele, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, point to CNN's "Tailwind" story in 1998 as an example of how a news organization in trouble responded correctly (see "An Ill Tailwind," September 1998). In that case, the all-news network brought in prominent media attorney Floyd Abrams to investigate CNN stories alleging the U.S. military used nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War. Abrams showed a sophisticated understanding of the news-gathering process that gave instant credibility to his conclusion that there were "serious flaws" in the reports.
The notion that reaction can trump action is a premise of crisis management that gained credence in the Tylenol product-tampering scare in 1982. Johnson & Johnson reacted in that case by pulling Tylenol off the shelf, publicly expressing regret and concern, and making its top executives available to the media.
"It's not PR," says Rowe. "It speaks to the quality of your leadership."
Nadler, now a senior director with the Delta Consulting Group, agrees with that premise. He recalls his role as a Wall Street Journal editor in 1984 when columnist R. Foster Winans was fired for giving stock traders advance tips from his "Heard on the Street" column. The Journal covered the story in depth.
"Every day," Nadler says, "the people I rode to work with kept asking me, ŒWhy are you flogging yourselves like this?' It gave us some pause. The answer was: because newspapers are in the business of beating up on others. It's important to be thorough and candid in treating your own lapses...to make sure that your newspaper remains a publication people will trust."
On the other hand, recent experience suggests that once they've vented their spleens, as they surely will, readers' interest in your dirty linen may be short-lived.
"One thing I learned," says the Globe's Storin, "was that there is an enormous difference between the reaction of fellow journalists and staff and the reaction of the general public. The public knows that others in professions--doctors, lawyers, whatever--have ethical lapses. We somehow come across as thinking we're better than anyone.... Your staff is going to be devastated, and you have to expect that. But the public is not going to be shocked; they have more perspective."
AS IF DEALING WITH A sometimes cynical public isn't enough, there also are other media--newspapers, television, radio talk shows, Web sites, the trade press--competing for your attention. The distraction will be greater in a major media market--there were TV trucks outside the Globe for days during the Barnicle affair--but no one escapes attention in the age of the Internet.
Bob Ashley in Owensboro even got media calls from a Japanese newspaper after he fired reporter Kim Stacy for faking her cancer series. He and his publisher tried to return all calls but drew the line at what he calls "tabloid TV."
Beaupre says he learned from the Chiquita story that you have to "pick and choose" whom you talk to in the media. "You return their calls and listen to their questions," Beaupre says, "but you don't have to answer them. Don't subject yourself to being beaten up. If you're not sure of the answers yet, it may not be a good use of time to deal with them."
"It's not fun, it's distressing," the Republic's Johnson says of dealing with other media. "You'll find some people who want to stick it to you. You have to be disciplined." Although Johnson says she made a commitment to return all calls for the first couple of days, she refused to get into back-and-forth situations in which she was being asked to respond to something said by the fired columnist or her lawyer.
In any celebrated ethics case, you may also have to deal with special pleaders or interest groups hoping to influence your decisions. In Boston, for example, the CEO of the Staples stores wrote a letter to the paper implying that he would withhold advertising if the Globe did not reinstate Barnicle. Anyone who understands the mind-set at a newspaper struggling to regain credibility could scarcely imagine a more counterproductive tactic.
Still, there's an argument for giving such groups an audience. "You have no obligation to pressure groups except a fair hearing in a very open way," Giles says. "They have no special right to influence your decision making."
ONE OF THE STRONGEST urges in the wake of an ethics breakdown is to find a quick fix, to just do something to show that this kind of lapse won't happen again. A new ethics code? Random spot checks of stories? Quicker reactions to suspicions of ethics violations? ###
The instinct is a good one, experts agree, but should be acted on carefully. Nailing an ethics code to the wall might make you feel better, but it won't accomplish much unless you make it "a living document in the newsroom," says Stanford's Woo.
In the wake of the Chiquita scandal at its Cincinnati paper, Gannett adopted comprehensive "principles of ethical conduct," a 10-page manifesto that spells out in fine print everything from "editing skeptically" and "correcting errors" to how to improve note taking. Gannett requires new hires to sign a form accepting the principles; those already on staff must sign a statement saying they have read them.
At the Globe, the ethics policy is now reviewed and discussed annually by reporters and editors.
At the Arizona Republic, the "credibility committee" is reviewing the paper's ethics policy and the whole process of editing copy.
At the Mercury News, the paper's 15-year-old ethics policy is being revised by a staff-led committee, which will make recommendations to management in two phases. The revision comes after a business columnist was suspended and demoted for making a quick $9,500 profit on a stock deal--and then writing about it for another publication (see Free Press, October). She resigned in November.
In Indianapolis, however, Frank Caperton dismissed the need for any new ethics measures in the wake of Steve Hall's firing for plagiarism, saying the policies in place were sufficient.
The fact is, many leaders in journalism don't agree on ethics codes or any number of corrective measures.
Rowe, for example, argues that it's better to have a "culture of ethics" embedded in your organization than to have a piece of paper. Byrd says she has mixed feelings about ethics codes because "it's not the code that's important; it's the writing and talking about the principles that's important."
At the Messenger-Inquirer, Editor Ashley reinstated random spot checks of stories in which subjects are asked to verify factual content, but Rowe says that the resources required to do spot checks could be better spent on fact-checking before stories appear in print.
A case of fabrication or plagiarism, which Caperton calls "the capital sins of journalism," may leave you and your editors asking: Do we trust our writers too much? Should we be more quick to act on rumors in the newsroom?
"If you feel like you can't trust someone, you ought to ask why," Rowe says. "You can't ignore rumors." But Storin says that it's dangerous to get into "hypotheticals" about pursuing rumors. "It's a slippery slope. Ultimately, you can't not trust your employees. You just have to keep your eyes open."
Larry Beaupre has the final word. "Trust has to exist, but that's different from blind trust," he says. "I never thought I'd be quoting Ronald Reagan, but he had it right: 'Trust but verify.' "