Crying Wolf?

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A Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi. Credit: National Geographic 

One of my first lessons about a personal code of ethics can be found in the story of the boy who cried wolf. In this fable, a young shepherd boy cries “Wolf!” every night, deceiving the villagers time and again into thinking he and his flock are in danger when he isn’t. One night, a wolf actually does approach him, but when he cries out again, no one believes him, thinking it’s another false alarm. Thus, no one comes to help, and the boy and his flock are eaten alive by the wolf.

I had this fable on my mind a few weeks ago, when my JMC 201 (News Reporting and Writing) class completed a brief, yet powerful exercise. Each student in the class was randomly assigned the name of a famous journalist or media figure who had been caught in a plagiarism or fabrication scandal of some kind and told to do some research on that individual. During the following class period, we gave a presentation to the class about what each person had done, how it impacted their career, and what they did with their careers afterward.

I knew that we were probably going to hear some outlandish stories; yet, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the breadth of ways in which these figures had slipped up, causing their careers to suffer or even, in some cases, vanish altogether. Several of the people discussed are no longer easily found on the Internet, and it’s impossible to say what they’re doing now. Others continued producing content, but have been met with mixed reception from an audience that, for the most part, no longer trusts them.

Such is the case for Jonah Lehrer, the journalist and writer I was assigned. Lehrer was initially the subject of widespread acclaim for his works and was a popular writer and speaker who was best known for his writings on the neuroscience behind creativity. However, Lehrer was discovered to have plagiarized himself, having re-published significant portions of his own prior work in new works without attribution. He was also implicated in the fabrication of several Bob Dylan quotes, a charge he initially denied and then conceded to later on.

While I knew fabrication was considered a journalistic ill, I hadn’t realized the impact of self-plagiarism on a journalist’s career. I thought that re-publishing your own words couldn’t be that bad, since you were the one who came up with them anyway. However, I soon realized that this practice is condemned because it conflicts with a widespread journalistic value: the value of proper attribution and research. What matters is that Lehrer didn’t attribute his ideas to their places of origin or initial publication, not necessarily that they were his own words all along.

Some of the other journalists we discussed had even wilder stories, such as having fabricated stories for decades, plagiarizing from smaller publications, and more. While the stories were incredibly varied, one prominent idea emerged: most people no longer see any of these journalists as individuals they can trust and take seriously. Their attempts to return to the field or enter into other ones (for example, law) are poorly received, as the public feels that they’re irredeemably immoral for their past mistakes. Even if they try to improve and grow from their experiences, they will always be remembered for those missteps.

All of these cases reminded me of why it’s so important to behave ethically as a journalist. Our entire reputation rests on the quality of our work, and if that work is found to be dishonest or the information unethically obtained, our careers will suffer. However, we should care about this issue from beyond a personal standpoint. Our audiences might feel hurt or confused if we compromise on common journalistic values, or we could be responsible for misinforming people whose minds will never be changed from then on.

The myth of the boy who cried wolf is often used to teach children the importance of telling the truth. After all, if you lie enough, no one will believe you when you really need them to. I think this simple lesson ties into the complex world of journalism quite well, and it lends itself to the construction of a few basic values that compose a code of ethics.

  1. Be honest: no matter what, it’s important to be honest, even if the truth isn’t as palatable or attention-grabbing as a fabricated version of it. Seeking the truth is one of the main duties of journalists, and that goal must be upheld at all costs.
  2. Be trustworthy: if your audience doesn’t feel that they can adequately trust you — for example, they find your work to be biased, have repeated inaccuracies, or to be poorly researched — you’ve lost a lot of what it means to be a journalist.
  3. Be humble and be realistic: in many of the cases we learned about, the journalists who plagiarized or fabricated information may have done so because they wanted to maintain a reputation for producing good work, getting things done on time, or for getting a scoop no one else had. However, these very goals ended with their complete downfall. It’s much more important to admit when you can’t get something done than to accomplish it through unethical means. I think humility and realism would help with this, as it would allow individual journalists to recognize the limit of their skills and to reach out for assistance instead of crashing down on a lonely journey to the bottom of the heap.
  4. Be true to yourself: it’s important to know when to be a journalist and when to be a person. If something feels extremely wrong to you, such as letting others get away with faulty journalism for the sake of allowing your company to maintain its reputation, do something about it.

While I think these values are essential to producing ethical works, I also think that they’re only scratching the surface when it comes to behaving ethically as a journalist, or even just as a person. I believe that crafting a code of ethics can be a deeply personal, lifelong journey, and we should respect and contemplate it as such.