Jayson Blair: Lessons Learned

Throughout his four-year tenure as staff reporter for the New York Times, Jayson Blair was well regarded by his colleagues for his charisma and writing ability. However, as doubts emerged about his maturity and careless behavior, none could have imagined he was capable of perpetrating the blatant acts of fabrication and plagiarism that marked his short career. In doing so, Blair violated the fundamental rule of journalism, the obligation to the truth, in a time when the public opinion of news organization is at a historic low. In the wake of the Blair scandal, it is necessary harness the lessons learned by reasserting the vital importance of ethics and updating the structure of the newsroom in order to reestablish public trust in journalism.

Over two hundred years ago, the founding fathers passed the First Amendment to the Constitution in order to protect five freedoms essential to democracy: the freedom of speech, reform, the press, petition and assembly. In 18th century America, the free press was a revolutionary instrument which benefited democracy by monitoring authority as champion for the ordinary citizen. However, in the self-satisfied society of 21st century America, the free press has become an institution of power itself. Thus, public skepticism on issues of integrity and credibility pose a serious threat to the future of journalism.

Although Jayson Blair’s repeated acts of journalistic fraud represent a low point in the history of journalism, the reaction of the public to his actions serves as a key indicator of entrenched dissatisfaction with the press. The troubled reporter often invented quotes or sources in addition to fabricating entire stories, yet the majority of the misquoted subjects neither complained nor demanded a correction. Pete Mahoney, associate athletic director at Kent State University was quoted as condoning the alleged practice of bending rules to meet NCAA Division I minimum attendance requirements. Although offended by the fabrication, Mahoney recognized the futility of challenging the New York Times, “for they hold the pen and have the financial resources” (CJR Blair’s Victims: That Helpless Feeling, Hassan). This is a further sign of how little the public trusts the press, for many accepted the mistakes as mere examples of the inaccuracy and presumption of the press.

One could observe that journalism and news organizations tend to be wary of committing to substantial professional development and formal skills training for staff, mainly for fear that it would lead to an elitist, restricted workplace in which natural talent was hindered. However, circumstances such as the Blair scandal require a reassertion of the ethics standard in highly competitive newsrooms where reporters are sometimes encouraged to cut corners. Greater emphasis on professionalism would hold journalists accountable to the public and set the standard for judgment. In addition, in the face of deteriorating advertising revenues, rising production costs and the advent of Internet blogs which both compete and criticize news organizations, the time has come to reevaluate the institution. Thus, the reorganization of the newsroom is essential to enforce the ethics standard and prevent the lapse of communication which facilitated Jayson Blair’s fraud.

The father of modern journalism ethics, Norman E. Isaacs stated, “The only way democracy can work successfully is through a value system that puts honorable public service in the reporting of events as accurately as possible, interpreting them honestly and analyzing them fairly. That kind of journalism can win back the confidence of the citizenry”(Rosenstiel). Thus, with a greater emphasis on ethics in the newsroom, journalism can rediscover its roots as the watchdog of the powerful and reexamine its historic ideals of fairness, accuracy and objectivity. The most important lesson to be learned is that the journalism profession must be reformed and in doing so, the bond of trust between the press and the public can be repaired.

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