This summer, one of The New Journal’s writers was accused of fabricating sources during her internship at a national newspaper. Our first reaction was surprise: why would an author fail to source? But the problem seems endemic to journalism—which raises questions about how publications should insure that readers trust what we print. Our experiences in the last few months made us realize the importance of fact checking in news and we decided to create a fact-checking process of our own at TNJ.
TNJ published the article in question, Liane Membis’ “Dreaming On,” in our February 2011 issue, two editorial boards ago. The piece’s veracity came into question in late June when Membis was fired from the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post had picked up “Dreaming On” soon after it was first published, and the news outlet removed the article from its site.
Soon after we found out about the accusations against Membis, we began fact-checking her work for TNJ. The article included testimonies from two undocumented Yale students and had received significant attention and acclaim for its relevance and honest portrayal. But Membis had granted the two sources anonymity, which understandably raised further suspicion of the article. However, TNJ independently verified both the existence of and testimonies of the sources.
We contacted and received verifications from nearly all of the piece’s sources, with two notable exceptions. One source said she had never talked with the author. Membis told us this was a misattribution — an editing error — and we did independently verify that the quote belonged to another source. The second source has chosen not to speak with us, and there is little we can do about that. At the time of publication, we can neither confirm the accuracy of the piece, nor refute it. The lesson seems clear: TNJ should have fact-checked before the piece went to publication.
So TNJ has decided to make a new commitment to its writers and readers. We are working to implement an effective but lightweight fact-checking system to cultivate a culture of accuracy among our writers. We have verified that none of the sources in the pieces published in this issue have been fabricated.
In handling allegations of inaccuracy, we are in good company. This summer, reporters Jonah Lehrer at The New Yorker, Fareed Zakaria at Time, and most recently Niall Ferguson at Newsweek came under suspicion for plagiarism or fabrication.
Why is this so ubiquitous? As Craig Silverman of The Poynter Institute reported, some of the most highly respected news outlets began to reduce or remove their fact-checking operations in the 1990s. Once a sign of a dedicated publication, a checking department is now a luxury.
Without a second line of factual defense, it is a writer’s integrity that compels them to report responsibly — integrity that editors at TNJ and at other publications have trusted almost absolutely. Indeed, we still have little reason to expect anything less than absolute honesty from our writers. We have no proof that our writers have falsified or plagiarized articles published in TNJ. But in light of this spate of accusations, we think it is important to have a support system to verify our writers’ work throughout the editing process.
Plagiarism and fabrication are often patterns. It is our responsibility to prevent them from our entering our pages. Every other month, we work with dedicated, intelligent writers whose articles highlight important issues for our readership. As people of the news, we are interested in truths.
Juliana Hanle and Aliyya Swaby