Journalistic Malfeasance Strikes Again: Another tragic tale of wasted youth (A throwback post)

A colleague who is advising a student media operation asked a question in an internet group setting after a kid on his staff admitted to fabricating a story for the publication:

Does anyone have any experience or policies to shed light on how such a person might be given a path to redemption?

The old editor in me says, “That’s it. Your journalism career is over.” But these days I see too many long-lasting severe consequences for young people who do dumb things, including criminal activity. TBH, I’m not really trying to open the philosophical debate here. I’m interested in options I can present to the student EIC, who will make the decision.

I thought about the question the guy was asking and put together what I thought was a pretty reasonable answer based on what he wanted to know: How do you give the kid a path to redemption? After I posted, several other folks chimed in with the idea that the kid SHOULDN’T get a path, given that this was likely not a one-off and that keeping the kid is borrowing trouble.

Truth be told, that’s actually the better instinct, based on a lot of things we’ve seen in the media world lately. We’ve covered this topic here and here and here where we had professional journalists get caught after years of making crap up. It’s never a one-time deal and the journalist’s whole career comes apart like when you pull a loose thread on a sweater once someone starts digging into the past.

The sad part was that the colleague updated us a couple days later:

Probably because of posts I’d read on this list about earlier situations, on Sunday I started emailing all the sources named in the reporter’s earlier stories. This morning, I started calling businesses where some of the sources allegedly worked. By lunchtime, there were several cases where no such person could be found to exist. After trying to come up with explanations for the first couple, the reporter finally admitted this had been a pattern. The reporter resigned.

This brings me to today’s throwback post, which looks at a similar situation involving a young reporter at USA Today. It’s not meant to “tsk tsk” people, but rather as a reminder, this kind of thing can happen to anyone in the right (or wrong) circumstances, so it is important to remain personally vigilant.



“It’s the first time you caught her.”

Stories of journalistic malfeasance are not incredibly rare, but they always sting. The most recent publicly noted case occurred over the summer, in which USA Today pulled 23 articles from its archives after an audit revealed quotes and sources were likely fabricated. The journalist responsible for those stories, Gabriela Miranda, began working for the media outlet in 2021. During the audit, she resigned.

Whenever a situation like this comes up, I think back to the first episode of the Netflix show “Ozark” and the issue of how to deal with someone who has cheated. The main character is involved with a drug cartel in a money-laundering scheme out of Chicago.

Del, the connection south of the border, makes an unexpected visit, accusing the laundering crew of stealing from him. He tells a story about his father’s grocery store and how his dad spotted a loyal cashier (a woman so close to the family, you call her aunt, he remarks) stealing $5  from the till one day.

She begged for forgiveness, saying she needed the money for a child’s medicine and that she’d never do it again. Del then asks each of the four men in the operation what his father should have done. Three of the men say he should forgive her, give her a second chance. After all, one mistake after 15 years of loyalty? The three men are brutally killed shortly after that. The fourth, Marty, doesn’t answer, but he manages to worm his way out of getting killed.

Later, Del asks Marty question again:

As much as people want to believe something like this was just a one-off, it rarely turns out to be the case.  After someone pulls on the first loose thread on sweater, others began to do so as well, and we see everything unravel.

The Gainesville Times, where Miranda worked for three months as a freelancer and a reporter, published a piece on her USA Today situation and audited her work. The paper stated it pulled only one story just to be on the safe side, noting Miranda had produced “only a small volume of work” for the publication.

Her college paper, the Red and Black at the University of Georgia began conducting its own audit of Miranda’s work after the USA Today situation came to light. That paper flagged 14 articles of concern of the 121 articles associated with Miranda. The publication then made the appropriate corrections or clarifications to six articles that didn’t pass muster after they were reexamined.

(If anyone wants to see perhaps the best example of transparency, thoroughness and honesty in the face of a potential disaster, read this write up on the Red and Black’s website that details the work the staff went through to address the problem. These folks essentially wrote the book on how to self-audit in a situation like this.)

To ask “why” is a pointless exercise. Each time a journalistic fraud emerges, we get a different story, none of which excuse the actions of the individual or fully satisfy the readers. It also provides us with an undeserved sense of superiority, as if “we” could never be capable of such a thing.

We all are.

Some of us deal with pressure better. Some of us grew up with a guilt complex. Some of us have a pathological fear of getting caught that keeps “bad things” in check for the most part.

But rest assured, not one of us is any less capable of cutting a corner or fudging a source. We just haven’t done it. Yet.

For journalists, journalism teachers and students who want to keep that demon at bay, go to the Red and Black and USA Today websites and look up the stories Miranda wrote in her brief journalism career. They are powerful, engaging and interesting pieces that run the gamut of social justice explorations to fun news features.

Now, just do a Google search on “Gabriela Miranda.”

Almost every link comes back to a story about her journalistic transgressions.

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