Stephen Glass fabricated articles.
And Stephen Glass lied to cover up this fabrication.
His mistakes were neither innocent, nor unintentional. Mortal sins in the newsroom, Glass committed both of these transgressions again, and again, and again. As if passing off fiction for news wasn't enough, Glass did everything in his power to cover up this tale-turned-truth, even creating an illegitimate Web site for a fake company, Jukt Micronics.
While there is no encompassing ethical standard or law for journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists has established an accepted code of conduct. The principles set forth are simple -- seek truth and report it, minimize harm and act independently and be accountable.
Glass didn't seek or report the truth. He didn't even try to perform one of these tasks. He created fiction and wrote it -- in 27 of the 41 articles he had written. The Code specifically states, "Deliberate distortion is never permissible." From the articles, to the sources, fake voicemails and Web sites, he continually distorted facts.
I feel the most sympathy for Glass's editors. In our textbook, the manipulation is discussed. They put their faith and trust into their prodigy, but he manipulated the system by knowing how to bypass the fact checking system (Foreman 127). They were helpless to Glass's intentions. Foreman continues to say, "Anyone who sets out to fabricate probably will succeed, at least for a while" (134). The editors could have done little to prevent this transgression.
But I am jealous of Alan Penenberg's role in the Glass saga. He was able to live up to the Code of Ethics, exposing the dirty journalism of The New Yorker's finest. Though probably a hard decision to make, Penenberg wrote "Lies, damn lies and fiction" in 1998. He wrote:
"It's tough proving a negative. It is even tougher proving that something or someone does not exist.
That was the challenge after The New Republic story, "Hack Heaven," which appeared in the May 18 issue, proved to be unverifiable. At first it appeared that Forbes Digital had been scooped by a weekly political publication."
These journalists represented the spectrum of reporting - from fiction to investigation. Hearing about Glass's rise and fall makes my skin crawl and my heart go out to his editors, blindsided by his kindness and promise. I can only hope that in my career as a journalist, I will never encounter someone so immoral.
I have worked in a professional newsroom for the past two years -- in fact, I am writing this entry listening to other editors critiquing writers' work, talking through the day's news and planning the layout for tomorrow's newspaper.
When I wrote (I'm now an editor), I dreaded the e-mails I would get with a subject line reading, "Error in Tuesday's Paper." Minor, innocent errors like mistaking a title would elicit corrections on page two of my beloved paper. I felt like I had failed everyone -- my editors, our readers, myself and my grandmother, who has a shoebox full of every one of my clips.
Though I am proud to say I have only ever had two minor corrections, I can still remember the sinking feeling at the bottom of my stomach as I sincerely apologized to my editor-in-chief.
I don't know how Stephen Glass slept at night.
1. Foreman, Gene. (2010). The Ethical Journalist: Making responsible decisions in the pursuit of news. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
2. Penenberg, Alan L. (May 11, 1998). Lies, damn lies and fiction. Retrieved February 4, 2010. http://www.forbes.com/1998/05/11/otw3.html
3. Society of Professional Journalists. (1996). Retrieved February 4, 2010. Code of Ethics. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp