Monday, June 27, 2005

Griego scandal expands credibility gap

I was supposed to be blogging about my Friday challenge: What are good works? I'm delaying that a day or two to spend some time reflecting on a local journalism scandal.

Diana Griego Erwin, a former Sac Bee columnist, has been accused of inventing people to suit the narrative style of her column. An internal investigation revealed so many dubious sources as to impale all 20 years of Erwin's work, whether it was truthful or not. Her career has been left for dead.

This is a different, more appalling scandal for the journalism community than some of the more prominent embarrassments because Erwin's alleged indiscretions can't be blown off as some lazy punk with a refined sense of deception. She isn't Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass. Her name is attached to a Pulitzer. She's won a George Poke and an ASNE award in her category. She didn't just fly under the radar, she's been recognized by her peers and superiors and set aside as an example for other columnists.

That such an esteemed writer came under suspicion is a story to itself. A reporter for a local weekly grew suspect after one too many Griego columns wrapped up with a perfect twist, with quotes that were a bit too ideal for the storyline. Anyone who has ever worked at any level of journalism knows stories rarely present themselves in dynamic narrative fashion, and people -- even educated people -- are not full of pithy, transitional quotes that help you tell the story.

It's why most copy can be a struggle to write and difficult to read. It's why there simply aren't that many great "human interest" columnists, and the ones that do aren't on top of their game in every column. If a hitter safely hits a baseball a little less than 40 percent of the time, and a home run between every 7 to 10 at bats, he's considered Hall of Fame material. In the age of anabolic steroids, that hitter is also going to face a lot of skepticism, such as the once deified Barry Bonds. Griego's success was met with similar results.

The temptation to actually make up sources is a strange one to me. It's never crossed my mind as I sit down to write a story. I'm usually too wrapped in trying to redirect my story angles based on the interviews I've collected or write better transitions. I've had to suffer the embarrassment of far too many one- and two-source stories because of my own inability to make contact or ask the right question that causes a difficult source to cough up the information I need.

The desire to put words into people's mouth is a strong temptation -- to put in print what they implied or told me off the record they wished they could say -- but that's only going to get a denial and make me look bad as a journalist. I am in the credibility business, and if I have to print only half the story because I could not verify the rest, while professionally unsatisfactory, that's something I have to live with. It's better to be considered having poor reporting skills than to have your credibility questioned.

But to make up a source? That's beyond my scope of understanding. To do it over and over again is such a brazen act in the face of such wide-reaching technology that I can only assume Griego, if indeed she is guilty, is a compulsive liar and cannot help herself. That's no excuse for bad journalism, but it helps me not want to burn her at a stake for somewhat sullying my own reputation.

This brings me back to the thing that got me onto this topic to begin with: Journalists need to get back into this business of credibility, and I'm not just talking about in our copy. We need to be accountable and known for telling the truth in everything we do, in all of our relationships -- especially with those in the public.

Someone is always watching, always listening. Act accordingly and speak plainly. I suggest be audaciously truthful and act with transparency, regardless of the truth. These are our hedges against spurious claims of fraud.

More than once my career has suffered because I could not lie about my failure to graduate from college. I probably have more college hours than many graduates, and I've probably read more books than some with masters, but I never met the specific graduation requirements so my resume reflects that. People who I know do lie about their degrees have surpassed me in my own departments. That might make some bitter, but I know it lends credibility to me, even if I'm the only one who knows about it right now. If the question comes up and HR directors start checking resumes, I won't be worried about my job or reputation.

In my first year in journalism I took a personal day off from my daily newspaper clerking job to work on a college newspaper project. My editor, sensing my previous exhaustion and knowing the likely reason I took the day off, interrogated me on it the next morning. I told him straight up what I did. He was stunned, not because of why I took the day off, but because I told him the truth. I'm not sure if he was not used to being told the truth by his employees, or if he just expected a stupid cub reporter to lie about it, but he paused for at least 30 seconds before picking his jaw up off the floor and giving me a lecture about keeping my priorities straight.

I gained a much longer rope with my boss that day. I had gained credibility because I was naive to the false benefits of lying. It was a much greater reward as a journalist. I don't have a college degree to list on my resume, but I have a distinguished reference who's willing to vouch for my personal honesty and integrity.

In today's journalism, I'm beginning to believe a provable history of telling the truth is worth more than that degree.

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