Paresh Jha debacle is a teachable moment for editors

There are probably three hard-and-fast rules when reporting the news: Keep your personal opinion out of it, don’t steal another person’s work and don’t make things up.

Paresh Jha, a reporter for the New Canaan News, in Connecticut, apparently didn’t adhere to that third rule and paid for it with his job. Craig Silverman, who writes the “Regret the Error” blog for Poynter, has done a great job with following the story as it develops. As of today, Silverman says at least 25 stories of Jha’s have been scrubbed from the paper’s website and there may be more to come.

Many of Jha’s stories feature people with odd names who are unlisted on Facebook and the white pages, teenagers who are just a little too eloquent and sources who are just a little too convenient for the nature of the story. Eventually, when Jha’s stories were put under the microscope — as they should have been before they even ran — they failed to pass muster. Cue sacking.

Much of the focus is on the reporting craft, with this episode used as a morality tale to scare cub reporters away from cutting corners. But I’d say that it actually offers more of a lesson to editors and fact-checkers. Namely, check everything. Ask questions. Verify sources’ identities. Based on the falsehoods that have been pointed out, most of these stories would have been undone by a 5-second Facebook, Google or phonebook check. Benefit of the doubt goes only so far. If something looks too pithy to be true — a driving instructor with the surname Retrede, really? — look into it. Hell, look into it anyway.

This incident isn’t just a reporting breakdown; it’s a failure of the entire editorial process. It shows why papers and news outlets should invest in quality fact-checkers and copy desks (there’s some rumbling that the staff was simply too undermanned), and it exposes the weakness in just taking someone’s word for it.

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Stewart, Colbert, truthiness and journalists

One of my (few) regrets since moving to England is that I won’t be in the U.S. or anywhere near Washington DC when Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert stage their dueling rallies, the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive.

Imagine my surprise when I read that NPR was banning its news employees from attending the rally. The New York Times and Washington Post, while allowing their employees to attend, have also given them strict guidelines on how to behave. Don’t wear supportive shirts, don’t give any impression of support, try hard not to laugh (no, really). The Times’ directive in particular makes use of the Royal We (it might as well be) and has the distinct flavor of an Old Testament God hurling down orders from on high. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s Colbert Nation wristband.”

Washington City Paper hilariously lampooned such guidelines in its own tongue-in-cheek staff memo regarding the rallies. My personal favorite guideline is #10: “Feel free to laugh heartily at any jokes that target the terrorists.”

And there, I think, is the rub. It’s OK to laugh at terrorist-targeted jokes because it’s easy and requires little in the way of political or journalistic courage. It comes down to news agencies’ skittishness about their credibility and a mad dash to snuff out anything that might remotely resemble a conflict of interest. Despite Stewart and Colbert frequently mocking both sides of the political spectrum, it’s clear which side has organizations nervous.

Media ethicist and Miami Herald columnist Edward Wasserman summed it up perfectly in his Oct. 25 column. He notes that hand-wringing over whether employees attend a DC celebration of satire (is The Onion next on the chopping block?) dilutes very real conflict-of-interest dilemmas. Conflicts of interest are taken extremely seriously, and at their core, they undermine a reporter’s ability to fairly and objectively report a story. A true conflict of interest, Wasserman notes, is something like “the business reporter who covers a company in which she owns shares.” It is not employees attending a comedic event off the clock.

He goes further and says that it’s actually against news judgment principles — seeking tenets of prominence, conflict, proximity, unusualness, timeliness and impact — not to allow reporters to attend the rallies. Telling a reporter not to attend a well-publicized, controversial, first- and possibly only-time, celebrity-attended, interesting event on their own time is akin to telling an off-duty firefighter to stay away from any burning buildings he sees.

It comes down to courage versus cowardliness. Are news organizations secure enough in their own integrity to allow their employees to attend the Colbert and Stewart rallies off the clock, or are they so afraid of the conflict-of-interest shadow that they think that not allowing their employees to attend will make any difference at all to the people most likely to scream “BIAS”? People out to undermine news organizations will always find something to nitpick. If it wasn’t this event it’d be something else.

Most ominously, Wasserman says, is the question of how news organizations will handle stories and events that actually have legitimate ethical and moral implications when they can’t or won’t face a satirical event head on.