Every time I see a situation like the one involving former Houston Chronicle journalist Mike Ward, who was found to have fabricated sources for his stories, I always think, “What the hell is wrong with this guy (or gal)?” Thanks to my overly Catholic upbringing and the guilt that comes with it, my next immediate thought is, “Hey, there but by the grace of God, go any of us.”
However, at various points in life, family and friends have hit me with a few helpful thoughts that stuck with me that kept me out of a lot of trouble. In hopes that these things might help you in your journalism career (or life in general), here are four of those bits and bites that might be useful:
If you’re going to steal something, steal the whole store
My dad can always make sense of things in a way that usually kept me from doing a lot of stupid things. He once told me a simple adage that helped me understand cost/benefit analysis in a truly elementary way.
“If you’re going to steal something,” he said. “Don’t steal a candy bar. Steal the whole store. I mean when they come back in the morning to open up, there should be nothing left but wires sticking out of the ground.”
His point was that once you steal something (or do something else despicable), you were marked for life, so it better be worth it when you throw away everything for it. I have no idea what Mike Ward was best known for before this, but it’s pretty clear he won’t be known for much else other than this going forward.
It’s hard to find a lot of background on Mike Ward, but he’s not like some of the other “fabulists” like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass who was a 20-something who got in over their heads. He spent more than 40 years in the field of journalism and nearly 30 years doing it in the state of Texas. He was working for one of the best newspapers in the state and a well-respected publication overall.
Was it worth throwing away his whole career and reputation to pep up the stories with random quotes that weren’t all that great to begin with? I doubt he thought about it like that, but I know I always let flights of paranoia take me to the worst possible scenario before I even think about “candy-bar-level theft” let alone taking out an entire store.
Stupid is bad, lazy is worse
I think this one came from my mother, but I’m not 100 percent sure. In any case, the underlying premise of not being lazy usually was Mom’s stock-and-trade when it came to things I was doing.
I know my general laziness was like a stone in a shoe for my mother. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be doing my homework and yell to Mom, who was in another room, “How do you spell (whatever I didn’t want to bother to look up)?” Her answer was always the same, “Look it up! You have a dictionary in there.” In short, don’t be lazy.
It could be unfair to deem Ward as lazy, but the way in which he seemed to make up random people would indicate at least some corner-cutting behavior.
It’s easy to find sources you use all the time for stories and to get used to those folks being ready to comment. The investigation into his various stories found that most of his “meat and potatoes” official sources were real people with legitimate quotes. Those folks could be interviewed with a quick phone call or a simple email.
The “real people” who hated guns or gun control, who planned to vote for a specific party, who didn’t like that the McRib wasn’t available all year and so forth require some “shoe-leather reporting.” Reporters have to go to local diners, knock on doors with “Don’t Tread On Me” flags flying outside, ask people they know for help finding people they don’t and generally chase around to get that one pancake-eating source who can give you the “salt-of-the-earth person” quote.
That part of the job is a major pain in the keester and it can be awkward as hell. Truth be told, I used to prefer asking people for comments after a shooting or a fire or something else horrible than walking up to a guy eating a funnel cake at the county fair to find out how much fun he was having at the event. Still, it’s part of the job, so I did it, despite the fact people treated me like I was from the KGB when I asked for their names.
Why Ward thought he could pull this off was a mystery, but it would seem to either be a dumb decision or general laziness. Neither of those approaches is good, so do your best to avoid both of them as a journalist.
They never did it just once
This one came from a former journalist and great friend of mine who covered the Chicagoland Catholic church molestation scandals of the early 2000s. I used to ask her how she knew for sure that the priests in her stories were serial pedophiles. The information she gathered came from the accusers, usually years or decades later, and was almost impossible to back up with documents or other “official source” content that I had gotten used to using in my own work.
Her answer was simple: She did a ton of digging, verified in every way she could and then she published the content and waited. In almost every case, if she published one or two accusations, she immediately heard from at least three or four other people who told her the same things had happened to them. It was like this scene at the end of “Spotlight.”
“They never did it just once,” Allison told me. “And they always did it the same way.”
She found that if a priest had trapped a child in the 1970s by promising baseball tickets and then luring the young man into his room, he did the same thing in the 1980s and 1990s. It was never a one-off and it was always the same.
Even though the magnitude is in no way the same, I think about this whenever a student mentions that they only cheated on an exam once or only lied about a source once or only did anything else sketchy once. It’s never just once. It’s just that they finally got caught.
When Blair was caught in New York, his student newspaper at the University of Maryland went back and found other fabrications and noted people were alerted to these problems at the time.Ward has a 40-year career in this field and he just got caught now in Houston. I would be willing to bet that this didn’t just happen once and it didn’t just occur to him now to do it. I have no idea how far back people want to go, but it wasn’t “just this once.”
If the thought ever occurs to you to cut the corner “just this once” and make up a source or hide a detail to spare a friend or fake your way through a story, don’t do it. It’s never just once.
It’s only hard the first time. After that, it becomes standard practice without a second thought.
Don’t bring shame on the family
I hear this in my head on a daily basis, courtesy of my father.
As I was preparing to go off to college, my mother was a veritable trove of advice, thoughts and wisdom that made “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” seem underwhelming by comparison. She told me of all things I would see and the experiences I would have and everything else good that college away from home would bring.
Dad was more practical and blunt: “Go have fun, but don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”
Tarnishing the family name was unacceptable to Dad, and to be fair, it kept me out of a lot of stupid situations. To this day, whenever I imagine doing something that might not be all that bright, I can see the headline in my mind: “UWO professor arrested on suspicion of (fill in the stupidity here).” I imagine the folks “back home” seeing my dad in the grocery store or running into him at the local farmer’s market and saying, “Hey… I read about your kid…” I STILL do this and I’m middle-aged, to put it kindly.
However, I also think about mistakes that tarnish that other “family” I referred to in the post about how journalists aren’t the enemy. In his 2016 piece on Janet Cooke, Mike Sager talks about how her fabrications led to the general mistrust of various groups of people. Some of his sources said that Cooke led others to distrust African-Americans in the newsroom. Others said it tarnished all journalism, leaving the public to regard all content with a wary eye.
I wonder what Cooke’s professors at the University of Toledo felt when they saw her quick rise and even quicker fall. I remember a few years back when a journalist in Alaska, Charlo Greene, quit her job during a live broadcast while outing herself as the owner of a marijuana-related enterprise.
A number of professors were chatting about this online when a professor I knew messaged me to say she had been a student of his. In discussing Greene’s collegiate experiences and the current situation, I could almost feel his grimace over the internet. If it were my student, I know I would have been rubbing my head and searching for aspirin while muttering, “Oh, good grief…”
Maybe it’s an old-fashioned notion that has people like me avoiding disaster by asking, “Good LORD! What would the NEIGHBORS think?” but I really believe it goes deeper than that. Each of us owes a debt of some kind to the people who helped us get here. The people who support us. Who take part in our lives. Those folks are family in the best possible sense and to create shame through poor judgment is to spread that shame upon them as well.
I might not always be thinking of myself when I do something good or bad, but you better believe I’m doing my best to not bring shame on those people.