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The University of Oregon duck mascot hides his head in shame? (He is actually "ducking" while filming a PSA in 2010.) (Credit:Wolfram Burner via Flickr)

University of Oregon-Eugene student newspaper The Daily Emerald revealed that one of its former reporters, Jessica Fisher, faked interviews and misquoted sources. The newspaper has since unpublished 13 of Fisher’s stories that were published between September and January.

The Emerald reported that one of the people with whom Fisher faked an interview contacted the newspaper after seeing a false quote attributed to her.

“This problem came to the Emerald’s attention on Jan. 23, when University of Oregon undergraduate student Ashley Adelman called the Emerald’s office to notify editors that she was quoted in that day’s cover story, but was never interviewed. This instantly raised red flags for the paper’s management staff.”

Emerald editor Stites told iMediaEthics that it was the first time the newspaper received a complaint about Fisher’s work. “That’s kind of what was so shocking,” about Fisher’s fabrications.

Commendably, the Emerald has not only been transparent about this incident, but also thorough in handling the fabrications. The Emerald published a detailed report on its website listing all of the fabrications, how it found out about the problems in the reporting and what the newspaper is doing to prevent future problems. In addition, the Emerald published a blogpost explaining how it reviewed all of the reporter’s work. And, the newspaper’s editor quickly responded to our inquiry providing even more information about what went wrong and how the newspaper is working to recover from the fabrications.

What’s remarkable about this is these are student journalists, showing full accountability and being open about a significant ethical lapse. If only all professional journalists would react this way, perhaps the public’s trust in the media wouldn’t take a dive each year.  In many plagiarism and fabrication incidents, news outlets close ranks, seemingly hoping the problem will go away.

“It’s an embarrassing thing for our newsroom to have to go through but we really want to regain the trust of our community and make sure we’re producing good journalism,” Emerald editor Sam Stites told iMediaEthics by phone.

What The Emerald Found Out

In a March 10 report on the Emerald’s website, Senior News Editor Ian Campbell broke down all of former reporter Fisher’s failings.

  • Faked interviews with six people
  • Misquoted three people
  • Made up one source
  • Eight “unverifiable” sources (the paper couldn’t find them “through Internet searches, cold calls, networking, Facebook and Twitter exploration”
  • Six sources who never confirmed comments (“never responded to emails or phone calls”)

In its investigation of Fisher’s articles, the newspaper found a Nov. 7 article where a graduate teaching fellow had hard evidence to prove she was misquoted in the article – e-mails showing her comments, which were different from what was published. The Emerald said in its report that Fisher is a sophomore at the university majoring in journalism and advertising.

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According to the Emerald‘s blogpost, as part of its investigation it had 3 editors “pore over every story Fisher wrote for the paper, contact her sources and find out if there was any more fabrication.”

When confronted by the paper, Fisher confessed and quit, The Emerald reported. She also sent a Feb. 25 letter apologizing for taking “short cuts.”

“I should have quit from week one really, but I didn’t and allowed myself to take shortcuts,” Fisher said in her letter. “These shortcuts — although temporary in easing my stresses — have hurt you, your staff and your publication, so widely cherished around our campus and beyond.”

The Emerald published her apology e-mail to Stites in which she admits “I messed up to the max.”

 

How the Emerald is Checking Sources Moving Forward

“After Fisher, we implemented a new system of randomly auditing different reporters,” Stites told iMediaEthics.

The newspaper calls sources to fact check their comments and also sends sources an informal questionnaire asking about their interview, he told us. For example, sources are asked, “Were you quoted correctly? Were you happy with the way your quotes were used? Do you think the story was written as it was presented to you?”

Hat Tip: Jim Romenesko

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13 Stories with Faked sources, Interviews, Misquotes in U of Oregon student newspaper

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