2010 cases: Post’s Jack Kelly

Nathan Helton

1) Introduction of the case

In January 2004, an investigation by the paper USA Today into the accuracy of foreign correspondent Jack Kelley’s reporting concluded that he “repeatedly mislead” editors in many articles throughout his journalistic career at the paper (Steinberg, 2004).  Kelley resigned after his editors had discovered he had attempted to deceive them as they sought to verify an article he submitted in July of the previous year.  In the article, Kelley reported that United Nations war crime investigators had discovered a notebook belonging to the Yugoslav army that contained direct orders to a lieutenant to “cleanse” a village in Kosovo (Steinberg, 2004).  Upon receiving an anonymous complaint the previous summer from within the newsroom about possible falsification in Jack Kelley’s reporting, editors at USA Today became suspicious of the Yugoslavia account, as well as several other articles written by Kelley.  When a faulty source emerged in the Yugoslavia account, USA Today hired outside teams of investigators that not only revealed many fabrications in a number of articles by Jack Kelley, but also assessed how such fabrications managed to slip past editors and into publication.

The Jack Kelley case provides a look at journalistic verification and how a strict fact-checking process, or lack there of, can make or break a newsroom.  In order to prevent such deceit, a newsroom must hold its journalists accountable for the information they obtain and provide concerning a report, and must not be afraid to call their own methods and hierarchy into question if such deceit is allowed to go unchecked.  This case also gives a good example of how journalistic transparency provides credibility to a news source.  A journalist’s information is only as good as his or her sources.  When given information, it is important to first verify the source, and then verify that source’s credibility.  If information is not transparent, that is, able to be easily sought into, then the credibility of not just the reporter and his new organization is at stake.  Such inaccuracies bring into question the fourth estate as a whole when its representatives are unable to adhere to the basic elements of journalism.

This case resembles the McCarthyism case in a few aspects.  Not only were McCarthy’s allegations printed without verification, he was not transparent in revealing his sources.  An instance of this would be the infamous letter containing the names of US officials who supported the communist party.  When pressed for the letter, McCarthy would often promise to reveal it at a later time.  Also, the number of names allegedly listed in the letter changed from time to time.  Like Senator Joe McCarthy, Jack Kelley used his credentials to his advantage.  Editors at The USA Today were quick to side with Kelley when concerns arose about the validity of his reporting. After all, he was a Pulitzer finalist and lifer at USA Today.  McCarthy knew that his title of senator was enough credit to get his accusations published fast without much inquiry from the media.  Also, the McCarthyism case shows how going back over information and checking the objectivity of sources creates a more transparent view of the case.  Edward R Murrow and the ABC network took the time out to check the validity of Senator McCarthy’s allegations and reported their findings on TV for all to see, ultimately aiding in bringing McCarthy down.  The USA Today conducted an investigation into all reports written by Kelley for the paper, which found a slew of other fabrications in a number of different articles written by Jack Kelley.  The investigation into Kelley’s reports concluded that “perceived favoritism of editors” and Kelley’s “considerable charm” aided in the paper’s failure to catch the fabrications (Steinberg, 2004).

The professional issue of transparency building credibility is evident in the Jack Kelley case as well as the Times-Picayune case.  In both cases, the newsroom self reported on its own faults.  The Times-Picayune reported on its racist past, approaching the evaluation already understanding that the organization was at fault for past biases.  USA Today’s investigation on how Jack Kelley’s stories were able to bypass editors is different in that the paper was caught somewhat off guard.  The investigation exposed weak spots and lax efforts on behalf of the chain of command.  Willingness to self-report on a media organization’s fallacies may shed light on serious problems in the newsroom, but will no doubt build credibility for the organization, especially when the investigation is organized by the newsroom in question.  Recognizing your faults and moving towards the betterment of the process by which citizens receive their news helps the fourth estate in its reporting efforts.  Though the investigations in both cases were without a doubt difficult, they were necessary.  In order to build credibility you must assure the public that your information is true, and be willing to accept responsibility and make moves to ensure continued validity when the information is not.








2) Background context research

After Jack Kelley’s resignation, USA Today hired an independent panel to assess all accessible articles written by the reporter for the paper.  The investigation found a number of red flags.  Such was an article written in 1998 describing a gun market in Pakistan written by Kelley that was oddly similar to an article written a couple months earlier in The Washington Post by reporter Kevin Sullivan.  Some sentences in Kelley’s article were nearly identical to Sullivan’s.  Further investigation into the article in which Kelley claims to have received a notebook ordering the cleansing of a village in Kosovo revealed that human rights advocate Natasa Kandic, Kelley’s source, “[did] not specifically remember being interviewed by Mr. Kelley,” and “did not believe that Mr. Kelley could have seen the notebook, as he suggested in the article,” for the notebook was being held at the headquarters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (Steinberg, 2004).  Ultimately, the investigation concluded that “perceived favoritism of editors” and Kelley’s “considerable charm” aided in the paper’s failure to catch the fabrications (Jacques, 2004).  The internal investigation lead to the resignation of Karen Jurgensen, the top editor of USA Today since 1999, citing her “failure to intercept” Jack Kelley’s fabrications (Steinberg, 2004).  Two other senior editors—Brain Gallagher and Hal Ritter—announced their resignation days after.

Though news media organizations generally do a good job of watching over themselves, a reporter determined to deceive his bosses can get away with it.  Kelley is not the first major example of an unethical journalist working for a leading newspaper.  Former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, was even able to elude the nation’s (if not the world’s) foremost newspaper throughout his career, often times blatantly copying other articles verbatim.  This begs the question, what can a newsroom do to weed out unethical staff members, and are there any policies at USA Today put in place to uphold such ethics?  In 1980, journalist Janet Cooke wrote an article for The Washington Post describing an eight-year-old heroin addict in the city.  Community response prompted a citywide search for the child.  Upon winning a Pulitzer Prize for her article, a previous employer noticed discrepancies in her biographical notes, specifically concerning her academic credentials.  Under pressure from The Washington Post’s editors, she confessed to making up her award-winning article.  In response, the Post implemented strict “supervisory programs” for their editors that provide “more advanced procedures” to filter out reporters who might fabricate stories, says former Washington Post editor, Leonard Downie (Johnson, 2004).  Communication is such that “everybody [pays] close attention to everybody else’s journalism.”  However, being taught how to catch unethical journalists does not ensure prevention, as Jack Kelley has proved.  Even after an anonymous colleague tipped off USA Today’s editors about possible fabrications in Kelley’s articles, they were reluctant to look into the issue due to the soundness of Kelley’s reporting.  The USA Today could have further investigated allegations that Jack Kelley had fabricated parts of his reports but chose not to due to his credentials, let alone his charming personality.  Kelley, who had been writing for Today since its conception, and who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting in 2002, used his prestige to manipulate his stories into publication.

Understanding conflict media is also important for understanding this case study.  The media’s coverage of warfare not only influences foreign policy, but also public opinion back home, for most of the public relies on the fourth estate for their information concerning foreign conflict.  Not only do the media report the news, “they create the news by deciding what to report,” claims conflict researcher Jennifer Akin (Akin, 2005).  The news must sell, and often times the media plays to the tune sung by the public, which may be unethical itself.  Jack Kelley was able to easily elude editors with his stories because he played right into public opinion concerning the foreign countries at war.  In a few cases, Kelley sang to the tune of public stereotypes concerning Israeli and Jewish extremists by simply creating characters that fit the public’s biased mold.  An article written in September 2001 by Kelley, shortly after the September 11th attacks, reported that a Pakistani youth revealed a photo of the Sears Towers to Kelley and sneered, “This one is mine” (Gorenfeld, 2004).  To the American public, this was to be expected from a terrorist nation that breeds its children to hate the USA.  The story was completely false.  Another article followed a group of Jewish vigilantes lead by an Avi Shapiro as they opened fire on a Palestinian taxi.  Again this story made sense to the American public, disillusioned by the on-going violence in Jerusalem.  However, upon investigation the Post “could not find anyone with first-hand knowledge of the attack” (Kurtz, 2004).  What makes Kelley’s reports more damaging, says John Gorenfeld, “is how influential these tales became” (Gorenfeld, 2004).  With public opinion on his side regarding the subjects of many of his articles, Kelley’s stories seemed like expected routine assessments of foreign conflicts amidst public biases.





3) Key questions

When discussing this case, here are a few things to consider:

1. Are the media to blame for being biased when their audience is stereotypical themselves?  Jack Kelley violated the most essential element in journalism, but did he uphold another element, loyalty, by his stories being in favor of skewed public opinion?

2. Was The Washington Post’s improper handling of Kelley’s colleagues concerns about his possible discrepancies justified due to his outstanding track record?  How would you have handled the allegations if you were editor and personally knew Jack and his work?

3. This case provides a look at the repercussions of failed transparency.  How can a news organization like The Washington Post prevent further errors and unethical practices?  Is it possible to rid all reporting of fabrications?

4. Could policies concerning fact checking and source validity span universally across all news media?  That is, would a newspaper, such as the Post need to implement a different policy compared to a twenty-four hour TV news broadcast such as CNN?

5. From a public point of view, how would the Jack Kelley case shape your attitudes towards journalism and reporting?  Would it affect only your opinions towards the Post and other newspapers, or would it encompass news media as a whole?

6. Did the Post’s willingness to self-report on their faults add credibility to the paper, or did they dig a deeper grave?  Why or why not?

7. In regards to conflict media, how do the media as Akin claims, “create the news by deciding what to report?”  What does the fact that certain aspects of overseas conflict are left out or deemed un-newsworthy and therefore are never reported to the public say about the influence of the 4th estate?

4) Teacher’s guide

I found that the Jack Kelley case addressed the issue of the need for transparency in a newsroom in regards to revealing sources and how such transparency helps build credibility.  Also, this case is a great example of the 4th estate’s power not just as a whole (question 7), but also in regards to a journalist’s personal influence.  I would like students to essentially learn from past journalistic downfalls in order to positively progress the 4th estate.  Questions 2, 3 and possibly 4 highlight these downfalls and get the class thinking about possible ways to prevent future setbacks.  Also, how could you clean up such a mess?  Question 6 addresses the later.  I want them to understand that while media outlets are interconnected, their means and mediums are very different, allowing easier opportunities for discrepancies to appear.  Get them thinking about the differences the ever-growing sphere of new media.  What must remain resolute in a constantly changing field in order to ensure the validity of the 4th estate?  How can we ensure that this pillar remains championed?  And if news media is constantly changing, are there any values able to remain in place for all mediums (question 4)?

This case cannot be properly assessed without taking into account the different points of view of those involved.  Question 1 helps the class understand how easy it was for Jack Kelley’s fake stories to be widely accepted by the public, and begs them to address the fact that (unfortunately) overall public opinion is biased in itself.  Get them to discuss how the public may in fact influence the media!  Question 5 addresses possible outcomes in response to discrepancies in transparency and again interconnects news media, while leaving the option open that maybe there are some sound differences between mediums worth mentioning.


5) References

Akin, Jennifer. “Mass Media.” Beyond Intractability. University of Colorado at Boulder, Mar 2005. Web. 17 Nov 2010. <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/mass_communication/&gt;.

Gorenfeld, John. “Blood-Thirsty Arabs, Vigilante Jews.” Salon. Salon Media Politics, 23 Apr 2004. Web. 17 Nov 2010. <http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feature/2004/03/23/jack_kelley/print.html&gt;.

Herbers, John. “McCarthyism, 1950-1954.” Thinking Clearly Cases in Journalistic Decision-Making. Ed. Tom Rosenstiel and Amy S Adams. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Johnson, Peter. “Media Weigh in on ‘Journalistic Fraud’.” USA Today (2003): n. pag. Web. 17 Nov 2010. <http://www.usatoday.com/life/columnist/mediamix/2003-05-11-mediamix_x.htm&gt;.

Kurtz, Howard. “USA Today Found Hoax Before Writer Confessed.” USA Today (2004): n. pag. Web. 17 Nov 2010. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A11670-2004Jan12?language=printer

Nelson, Jack. “New Orleans Times-Picayune Series on Racism.” Thinking Clearly Cases in Journalistic Decision-Making. Ed. Tom Rosenstiel and Amy S Adams. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Steinberg, Jacques. “Editor of USA Today Resigns; Cites Failure over Fabrications.” New York Times 21 Apr 2004: Archives. Print.

Steinberg, Jacques. “Journalists Say Paper Failed to Stop Deceit of a Reporter.” New York Times 29 Mar 2004: Business Day. Print.

Steinberg, Jacques. “Panel Says Poor Standards Allowed Deception at USA Today.” New York Times 23 Apr 2004: US. Print

Steinberg, Jacques. “Source for USA Today Reporter Disputes Details of Kosovo Article.” New York Times 26 Jan 2004: Business Day. Print.


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