Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Accountability is important in journalism

By the Advocate Editorial Board
April 12, 2014 at 4:02 p.m.
Updated April 11, 2014 at 11:12 p.m.

In 2003, the world of journalism received a major blow. Jayson Blair, then a writer for The New York Times, was revealed to have plagiarized dozens of stories using little more than a cellphone and an Internet connection.

The incident has been a stain on journalism ever since. The New York Times is one of the national leaders in journalism. Many have wondered over the years if something so blatantly unethical could happen there, what's to stop it from happening in other publications? The scandal has resulted in publications across the nation reexamining their policies and safeguards to prevent a similar scandal from occurring. A documentary titled "A Fragile Trust," which will be screened at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Victoria Fine Arts Center, looks at this scandal through the culture of The New York Times at that time, Blair's mental illness and how the Internet is affecting journalism.

Blair's plagiarism was exposed by Macarena Hernandez, who was the Rio Grande bureau chief for the San Antonio Express-News at the time. Blair copied a story Hernandez had written about a missing U.S. soldier serving in Iraq and his family in Los Fresnos. Once this came out, The New York Times conducted a full review of Blair's past work and published a 7,500-word story explaining his past with the company and how he was able to continue his plagiarism for so long without detection. Blair's other stories included several inaccuracies and fabricated facts. In one story about Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch's capture and rescue, Blair described the family's home on a hilltop overlooking tobacco fields. The family's home is in a valley, and no tobacco fields are in sight.

Looking at just these few instances, in an odd way, it reassures us that something similar is highly unlikely to happen in our small community newspaper. Part of the reason that Blair's unethical behavior continued for so long was because the sheer scope of the Times' national and international coverage meant that many inaccuracies went unnoticed or unreported. In our community, our readers call us out for confusing the names of Ben Wilson and Ben Jordan streets or forgetting to include a child's name in a Little League team picture. Our local-first focus and our active, involved readership keep us constantly accountable, and we are grateful for that.

In addition to our readers, we also have the Victoria Advocate ethics board, which includes the leadership of the newspaper as well as Hernandez and Jim Story, an educator from Port Lavaca and a member of the Crossroads community. The board examines any ethical questions that arise in our coverage, which can range from the use of pictures when covering vehicle wrecks to suspected plagiarism or other unethical behavior. With these safeguards in place, we are confident that the Advocate can continue serving its readers and the Crossroads community with integrity.

We encourage our readers to attend this screening of "A Fragile Trust" and take part in the conversation with filmmaker Samantha Grant. The documentary was done as part of Grant's 2006 thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, and takes a look at the scandal from a new perspective. In our society, in which almost any information a person desires is available through a simple Internet search, it is easier than ever to plagiarize. This documentary will help readers see inside the world of journalism and the importance of ethics and accountability. And when our readers are educated and involved, it makes us a stronger, better publication as well.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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