Distance from the Newsroom leading to Distance from the Truth

1 May

The life of a foreign correspondent in the world of journalism is a flurry of traveling, covering different stories on different cultures and spending time on the scene rather than in the newsroom. This distance, however, can sometimes lead to an abandonment of the truth. When the distance from the newsroom is lengthened, is the distance from ethical reporting lengthened as well? For Jack Kelley, former foreign correspondent for USA Today, the truth was all but present in his writing.

Jack Kelley was a celebrated reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist for USA Today, where he worked his way up on the reporting ladder starting as a news assistant in 1982. It was not until May, 2003 that Kelley’s work was questioned. A simple investigation to clear up that question is what snowballed into the demise of Kelley’s career in journalism.

An article published by American Journalism Review described Kelley as “the most prominent foreign correspondent for the nation’s largest newspaper. Kelley filed hundreds of stories from all over the globes, for about the last decade he had a hand in nearly every major international news event.”

In his personal life, Kelley was a religious man who frequently lectured at Evangelical Press Association. He was described by American Journalism Review as “polite and clean-cut. There’s no smoking and certainly no drinking.” How was it then, that such a smart, experienced and renowned journalist was caught for plagiarism and fabrication in his stories?

They were too good to be true.

Matthew Fisher, foreign correspondent for Postmedia News, a Canadian publication, stated that Kelley was “always seeming to finding an exact quote with vivid language that fit perfectly in his story. I was with him more than once when I did not hear a quote that he later had in his copy. But I had no way to prove him wrong. He would claim he heard it earlier or later. Still, it made me leery about the veracity of anything he wrote.”

While many may have held their suspicions about Kelley’s sources and how events actually played out, his stories mostly went unquestioned. In May 2003, however, an anonymous tip was sent to USA Today’s former executive editor, Brian Gallagher, alleging that Kelley was following in the footsteps of fabricator Jayson Blair.

“Jack also liked to play up the James Bond aspect of his life. I often could not reach him because he claimed he was on a secret mission,” Fisher commented. “Intelligence agencies from other countries were always after him, or so he said. He claimed, falsely I believe, that he was beaten up in the elevator of a five star hotel in Moscow.”

An investigation of Kelley’s articles commenced. According to a case study on Jack Kelley by Online NewsHour, after going through various articles, one stood out to the editors of USA Today. An article published in 1999 concerning Yugoslavia. In the article Kelley wrote that a small black notebook was found that contained orders given by the Yugoslav army to ethnically “cleanse” a small village near Kosovo. The existence of this notebook is what the editors focused on because it accused the Yugoslav army of ordering genocide, an offense not easily brushed aside.

Kelley was asked to provide proof. His source, whom he said he interviewed for the story, stated that she did not recall ever being interviewed by Kelley. Kelley then said that there was a translator there who could vouch for him and his credibility. The editors were provided contact information and spoke to a woman who Kelley claimed was a translator at the scene.

After further investigation into this translator, it was uncovered that this woman was a Russian translator who Kelley had asked to speak on his behalf, although she was never actually present at the scene Kelley described.

By December, 2003, Kelley confessed to purposely trying to deceive the editors at USA Today during their investigation into his work.

“My trust in his reporting slowly unraveled,” Fisher stated. “There was no “Eureka” moment until his wild tale in Kosovo. I knew that to be untrue because I had just spent a lot of time with him there and what he claimed to have done was news to our mutual ‘fixer’ who was a good one with dazzling contacts who told me straight away that what he claimed was nonsense.”

After discovering this fabrication, a review board was assembled for a more thorough investigation of Kelley’s work. Approximately 720 stories written by Kelley were reviewed. Over and over the board found that there were sources that could not be found, plagiarized quotes and phrases and story components that were fabricated altogether.

“It was a tragedy for Jack,” Fisher stated.  “I knew the guy well. I am quite sure I spent more time with him on the road than any American reporters had. He was immensely charming and could get people to open up like few other reporters could. This access helped him get colour for his stories. That should have been enough to make him an outstanding reporter. But it was clearly not enough for him.”

On Jan. 6, 2004 Kelley resigned from USA Today and the review board continued their examination as USA Today attempted to recover from the brutal blow to its reputation.

Don Kirk, a former foreign correspondent for USA Today, stated that being a foreign correspondent contributed to this deception.

“The USA Today editors who oversaw foreign news had no experience, no power of judgment, no skills,” Kirk stated. “They were extraordinarily arrogant, with no notion of their own ignorance and no humility.”

Although Kelley admitted to deceiving the paper during their investigation, he maintained that he did not fabricate or plagiarize any of his stories.

“Jack often talked to me about how others at USA Today had accused him of making things up because they were jealous, Fisher said.  “There were a few reporters at that paper whom he absolutely loathed. He claimed they were part of an organized conspiracy to get him.”

The scandal resulted in Kelley’s editor, Karen Jurgensen, retiring and the resignation of former managing editor, Hal Ritter. USA Today tried to rebuild its reputation through their investigation, revamping their policy on using unnamed sources and creating a standards and development editor position to handle ethics in reporting.

“I would say the work of the USA investigators was incomplete,” Fisher said. “I believe that the paper had an obligation to its readers to investigate everything Jack wrote or at least investigate all of the articles that others had specific doubts about. After their investigators contacted me and we had finished talking about what was on their list, and they certainly had a list, I tried several times to tell them of a few other stories that I was fairly sure that Jack cooked up. But they told me they weren’t interested.”

These efforts, however, did not change the fact that Kelley was able to fabricate stories a million miles away and pass them off as truth.

When asked if it was easier for some to fall into plagiarism or fabrication when reporting abroad, Don Kirk stated “My view is that seeing is believing, and there’s no substitute for being there. If you’re not actually on the scene, at least you can get your own material. Otherwise, there’s no point.”

He continued, saying that “The ultimate blame goes to the top editors who couldn’t see through his nonsense or realize the incompetence of their subordinate editors.”

It follows then that distance from the newsroom and the editors can be a factor in plagiarism and fabrication. The many miles between the correspondent and the publication can serve as a buffer that leads one to believe they will get away with their journalistic crime.

Fisher commented on this, saying that “it is absolutely that the further away you are from your desk the easier it is to get away with such unethical behavior.”

Jack Kelley’s story serves to show that whether near or far, the news can be manipulated, created and falsified and then fed to the public as fact. The other side of this story, however, is that you can be caught. The miles between a reporter and the newsroom may create a comfortable notion of protection from being found out, yet in the end, the news relies on fact and truth will prevail.

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