Journalist Code

CASE STUDY: Identify Ethics: Stephen Glass

Like doctors and lawyers, journalists are expected to abide by a specific code of ethics, including the obligation to be fair, clear, and accurate.  The nature of journalism itself, and the role it plays in society, demands reporters be interested only in the truth.

After a glamorous journalism career and quick rise to the top, young reporter Stephen Glass was fired in 1998 from one of the country's top political magazines, The New Republic.  Editors discovered he had fabricated, some partially and some entirely, dozens of articles throughout his three year career at the magazine.

Glass grew up in Highland Park, Illinois and attended the University of Pennsylvania where he was executive editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian, the school newspaper.

After graduation, Glass became an editorial assistant at The New Republic, which is the official in-flight magazine of the president's plane, Air Force One. He quickly rose through the ranks and by the age of 25 was an associate editor and one of its star reporters, producing sensational, descriptive stories, including one about young men engaging in drinking, drugs and sex at the 1997 Conservative Political Action Conference.

For Glass, the lying and fabrication that led to his termination at the magazine snowballed. He told correspondent Steve Kroft in a CBS 60 Minutes interview.

"I remember thinking, ‘If I just had the exact quote that I wanted to make it work, it would be perfect.'" Glass told Kroft. "And I wrote something on my computer, and then I looked at it, and I let it stand. And then it ran in the magazine and I saw it. And I said to myself what I said every time these stories ran, ‘You must stop. You must stop.' But I didn't."

Glass enchanted his editors and fellow reporters with his knack for finding interesting stories.

"Everything around him turned out to be incredibly vivid or zany or in some other way memorable," literary editor of The New Republic Leon Wieselteir said in the 60 Minutes interview. "And at the meetings, we used to wait for Steve's turn, so that he could report on his next caper. We got really suckered."

In 1998, Glass wrote a story called "Hack Heaven," which detailed the underworld of computer hackers and highlighted a 15-year-old hacker who allegedly hacked into a software company's site. According to Glass's article, the company, called Jukt Micronics, offered the hacker a job and monetary pacakge instead of prosecuting him. The article characterizes this incident as a budding trend between hackers and the companies they target and describes in great detail a hacker convention that allegedly took place in Bethesda, Md.

Here is a video clip from the movie, Shattered Glass, which details Glass's fall at the New Republic. The clip shows him pitching the story idea for "Hack Heaven" during an editors meeting. As you can see from the clip, Glass enjoyed the drama and the attention he got for his creative story ideas.

The entire article, however, was fabricated. The hacker convention did not exist. Jukt Micronics did not exist. The 15-year-old hacker who wanted cars and porn did not exist.

Adam Penenberg, a reporter from Forbes.com, looked into the story and found no listing for Jukt Micronics on the Internet. Further investigation showed no company named Jukt Micronics had ever paid taxes in the state of California where it was supposedly based. Afterwards, Glass's trail of lies unraveled as he supplied the editor of The New Republic, Charles Lane, and Penenberg with numbers for sources that led to strange voicemails and no answers. One number for an alleged Jukt executive led to Glass's brother in Palo Alto, California. Glass even created a fake website for Jukt Micronics and fake business cards for the company's executives.

Glass was fired by the magazine, and further investigations found he had fabricated parts of at least 27 stories throughout his career at The New Republic.

This blatant disregard for the truth shows how Glass violated the code of ethics held by journalists in the United States and around the world.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, journalists should always:

"- Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

- Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.

-- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story

- Never plagiarize."

Glass broke all of these cardinal rules of ethical journalism. Glass and others like him serve as examples of what a journalist should never do.

After Glass, an even more infamous story broke about New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair, another young reporter who rose quickly at the paper. He wrote 600 articles total during his four years there. His stories were full of factual errors and he plagiarized articles from other publications.

Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in Washington D.C. named Jimmy. The boy turned out to be fictional, and the award was revoked.

People like Glass, Blair and Cooke provide the journalism world with examples of ethics and reporting at its worst.

These examples highlight and identify what not to do as ethical, objective journalists, and while their actions are deplorable, we can learn from their mistakes.

As former editor of The New Republic Andrew Sullivan wrote about Glass in Slate magazine, "I can hardly absorb the idea that he was responsible for a whole series of fabrications so elaborate they eluded everyone until now," Sullivan writes in Slate as reported in the Washington Post. "It's one of those moments when you question everything, especially about the business of journalism. . . . What makes someone do such a thing? And how can we trust anyone? And what could we have done to prevent this?