How outing a fabricating reporter illustrates the importance of integrity, trust

Photo by Flickr user Dr. Andre
Photo by Flickr user Dr. Andre

This week, the Cape Cod Times issued an apology to its readers for the work of one of its reporters, Karen Jeffrey.

“There is an implied contract between a newspaper and its readers. The paper prints the truth. Readers believe that it’s true,” the paper’s publisher Peter Meyer and Editor Paul Pronovost wrote. “… so it is with heavy heart that we tell you the Cape Cod Times has broken that trust. An internal review has found that one of our reporters wrote dozens of stories that included one or more sources who do not exist.”

The paper did an internal audit of some of the stories written by Jeffrey, who had been with  (“She no longer works for the Cape Cod Times,” her former employers wrote) since 1981. It was unable to verify identities for 69 people in 34 stories dating back to 1998, when it began keeping electronic versions of its stories.

We were able to verify sourcing in many stories written by Jeffrey, mostly police and court news, political stories, and recently a series on returning war veterans. The stories with suspect sourcing were typically lighter fare – a story on young voters, a story on getting ready for a hurricane, a story on the Red Sox home opener – where some or all of the people quoted cannot be located.

In 2011, for example, a story on the Fourth of July parade in Cotuit featured Johnson Coggins, 88, “the patriarch of the family” and a longtime Cotuit summer resident. No one by that name can be found using public-records searches and there is no Coggins in the town of Barnstable’s assessor’s database. We were unable to locate five other people featured in that story.

In a 2006 story on the Falmouth Road Race, we were unable to find five individuals, including Daniel Fortes of San Diego, a marathon runner who, Jeffrey wrote, has run the Boston Marathon and the Falmouth race but was sidelined with an injury that year. Fortes could not be found using public records and no one with that name had competed in the Falmouth race or the Boston Marathon for the five years leading up to the story, according to the races’ websites.

Times editors reviewed Jeffrey’s stories using a variety of search techniques, including a public-records database tool called Accurint, searches of voter rolls and town as

Sadly, Jeffrey is not alone. There have been the fabricators before her: Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass immediately spring to mind.

Trust, integrity and transparency

This obviously painful post acts a reminder of the importance of the integrity and transparency. Kudos to Cape Cod Online for coming clean about the problem, and being so open with its readers about the process.

Do I think the Cape Cod Times was too harsh on this reporter? Not at all. A news organization should support its writers, unless they breach the trust that readers place on them to report fairly and objectively.

The news organization recognizes that the fabrications are a breach of trust with the reader:

It’s an editor’s job to scrutinize a reporter’s work and be sure what we publish is fair and accurate; at the same time, there also is a level of trust between a reporter and an editor. Reporters take this responsibility to heart and when someone treats their work with anything less than the highest ethical standards, good journalists are heartbroken. We can say with certainty that’s how we feel at the Times.

We must learn from this painful lesson and take steps to prevent this from happening again. Moving forward, we will be spot-checking reporting sources more frequently; choosing stories at random and calling sources to verify they exist.

As always, we also invite you to let us know if there appears to be a mistake. We believe in transparency, and we welcome any feedback on any story at any time. Be assured we will use this incident as part of an ethics training session for newsroom staff.

This is the kind of integrity and transparency that should earn the Cape Cod News loyalty from its readers at a time when there are so many competitors for their precious time.

These days, anyone can play the role of a reporter, writing stories and posting photos on a blog that looks attractive, professional and objective.

But readers are owed an objective news source they can trust,  and in coming clean about what some news organizations might be tempted to declare ‘an internal personnel’ problem, the Cape Cod Times retains that trust.

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