The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

  back    
PULITIZER PRIZE: US PAPERS PAY THE PRICE FOR CONFUSING FACT AND FICTION
Rocked by scandals and heightened mistrust, newsrooms have had little to celebrate over the past 12 months
  

In Pulitzer Alley, one gold-framed plaque has been taken down for what the New York Times calls "restoration". It honours Walter Duranty, a 1932 winner. But, after a series of complaints, the citation will be amended, to note questions about his failure to cover the famine in the Soviet Union that year

 

By Holly Yeager, Financial Times
London, UK, Monday, April 5, 2004

The newsroom celebrations for Monday's Pulitzer Prize announcement will mark the end of a fraught year for the US newspaper industry, as publications large and small have struggled with questions of credibility and heightened mistrust.

This crisis of confidence was not in the air a year ago, when The New York Times toasted its latest winner of journalism's most prestigious prize and prepared to add his picture to Pulitzer Alley - a winding corridor on the 14th floor of the paper's headquarters.

Press gang: Washington Post staff celebrating winning last year's Pulitizer Prize for best international reporting
(Click on image to enlarge it)

Neither was the departure of Howell Raines, himself a Pulitzer winner. He stepped down as executive editor last June, along with his second-in-command, after revelations that Jayson Blair, a young reporter, had fabricated stories, prompting a broader examination of the Raines era.

In a lengthy, and at times bitter article in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Mr Raines writes that he had hoped to get the paper "off its glide path toward irrelevance".

But his critics say recent changes in American journalism reflect a desperation to hold on to readers against a background of an 8m copy decline in US daily newspaper circulation over the past 20 years and increased competition from television and the internet. Those forces have created a culture that rewards flashy writing, prize-winners, and reporters eager to plug their stories on television.

The declaration of a mistrial on Friday in the six-month trial of ex-Tyco executives Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz has been partly blamed on decisions by the Wall Street Journal's online edition and the New York Post to print the name of a juror who was later threatened. Instances of plagiarism and fabrication have been reported from Connecticut to Chicago, from Washington to Georgia.

Most recently, USA Today, the nation's biggest paper, said it had strong evidence that Jack Kelley, a former foreign correspondent, had faked parts of at least eight big stories, including one that made him a Pulitzer finalist in 2002.

"Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley are the poster children of plagiarists and fabulists," says Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, who helped uncover Mr Blair's cheating. But, as he wrote last week: "What once appeared to be isolated incidents are now proving to be a larger pattern of fraud."

In an editorial last week, the Hartford Courant in Connecticut - which suspended a sports reporter for plagiarism and stopped using a food writer for the same reason - expressed sadness over the USA Today revelations, adding that recent plagiarism incidents "point to a disturbing blurring of the lines between entertainment and factual reporting that should trigger renewed efforts at self-policing".

Several suggestions to fix the problem have emerged. These include the establishment of fact-checking teams to perform random audits of stories, and stronger efforts to keep known plagiarists from being hired elsewhere. The New York Times has changed its policies on bylines and datelines, and hired a standards editor and a public editor, to deal with readers' concerns.

But there are signs that the scandals have had a bigger effect inside newsrooms than outside, where public attitudes towards the press have been declining for two decades. A survey last July by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found the public's ratings of the press unchanged by The New York Times scandal. Overall, 56 per cent said media stories were often inaccurate and 62 per cent said the press generally tried to cover up its mistakes rather than admitting them.

Press scandals are, sadly, nothing new. The most famous case before the recent incidents involved Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer in 1981 for a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict who did not exist.

But Karen Hunter, reader representative at the Hartford newspaper, said she had only been contacted by a few readers about the two plagiarists identified at her paper. "It's more of a sin against writers," she said.

More often, readers complain about political bias, too little attention to their neighbourhoods, or inappropriate photographs - as they did last week when the paper printed a large front-page picture of the bodies of burned Americans dangling from a bridge in Iraq.

In Pulitzer Alley, one gold-framed plaque has been taken down for what the New York Times calls "restoration". It honours Walter Duranty, a 1932 winner. But, after a series of complaints, the citation will be amended, to note questions about his failure to cover the famine in the Soviet Union that year.


FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY
 
 

  back