The power of lies: Thoughts after a student reporter's fabrication
This past week, the Daily Kent Stater had a rare case of fabrication — a journalistic transgression as rare as it is damaging. Below is a letter I wrote for KentWired and the Daily Kent Stater, explaining the situation and apologizing to all those involved.
Journalism is in a unique role to tell the world’s stories honestly and credibly. This week, that position was taken for granted.
I’m writing to explain one of journalism’s greatest transgressions, how it happened this week at the Daily Kent Stater and how we will ensure it never happens again.
Editors on Wednesday were shocked to learn a reporter made up the first five paragraphs of a front-page story, “The Power of Words,” that appeared Tuesday. The reporter fabricated a scene in which a white cheerleading captain at Kent’s Roosevelt High School approached Imani Sales — a real student at the high school at the time — and made an offensive remark.
That scene never happened, and the Stater published it in Tuesday’s paper and on KentWired.
During an investigation, the reporter admitted to making up the lead of the story. He had lied to his assigning editor and confirmed all the details were accurate. Because his fake scenario used a real person’s name, copy editors were able to confirm the name’s spelling and otherwise saw nothing unusual.
Upon learning of the fabrication Wednesday, editors acted immediately, took out that fabricated part of the story, then ultimately disposed of the story altogether later in the afternoon. The Stater apologized by phone to Sales and Kent Roosevelt’s principal and athletic department.
Making stuff up and passing it off as true is nothing less than abominable ethics. According to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — and reprinted on syllabi in journalism classes here — “faking quotations, faking ‘facts,’ reporting things that did not happen are not only reprehensible; they could be actionable in court.”
It’s among the cardinal sins of journalism.
But even more important to me than lofty, academic jargon and fine print on course syllabi is the incredible and real harm that results from offenses such as these. The reporter’s scene was fiction, but it damaged real people.
We harmed Imani Sales. We harmed the school’s cheerleading squad and athletic department. We harmed students and alumni of Kent Roosevelt.
Which brings me to an unusual effect of journalism: its potentially explosive consequences. What’s reported in seemingly small settings affects the big picture. When the reporting fails or facts are questioned, journalism’s phrases and sentences and paragraphs make waves through a community and can close doors. When integrity is gone, people in the community may stop talking to each other.
The fabrication was the result of a reporter who didn’t understand the magnitude of what he was doing. We have removed all of his previous stories from KentWired and notified him in a meeting that he is no longer welcome to work for us.
A transgression of this magnitude is sure to draw ire, especially from those directly involved. But I want to assure the Kent community that we recognize the damage, and it embarrasses me, the Stater staff and the school. Professors here have lectured on the principle of conveying truth from ethical, legal and moral standpoints. We are re-emphasizing the importance of ethics in journalism with the staff at the Stater.
I promise you we are taking every possible action to ensure this never happens again.
I offer my sincere apologies, on behalf of the Daily Kent Stater, to all involved.