It happened again.
Another journalist was fired after it was discovered that he’d made up a source.
In this case, the journalist in question is Rob Sgobbo, a young and not very experienced reporter for the New York Daily News and freelancer for the Village Voice who, according to news reports, was canned after an editor discovered he’d fabricated sources and lied about his reporting.
Sgobbo may have been young, but he had to know what he was doing was wrong. He’d recently graduated from one of the best j-schools in the country, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he no doubt took a course in journalism ethics to get his degree.
This freelancer had everything going for him – great training, work at prestigious publications.
Why blow it by faking a source?
I know nothing about the particulars of the situation beyond what I’ve read. But I have my suspicions. They’re the same hunches I have every time I hear about a reporter who’s played fast and loose with the truth.
Here’s why I think journalists cheat:
1. Deadlines. They’re a relentless fact of life if you’re in the news business. But there are ways to deal with them.
2. Stress. Caused by deadlines.
3. Needing to find sources that fit a very specific description. I’m as guilty as the next editor of asking the writers I work with to find people, places or companies that exemplify the issue or trend they’re writing about. Is that hard? Yes. Is it impossible? No. It can take time. In fact, in some cases finding the right source can take the majority of the time and effort that goes into a story, especially if you’re searching for a specific type of person, or the source is reluctant to talk on the record but without whom there is no story.
4. Unreal expectations. Editors can have unrealistic expectations for what a writer can accomplish with limited resources in a given period of time, especially if a writer doesn’t say anything to set them straight. Writers can have equally unrealistic expectations about what they’re capable of producing given their experience, knowledge of the subject and time.
5. Culture of cheating. If high school and college students are OK with texting test answers to each other from cell phones stuffed inside their pants pockets or buy their ADHD friends’ Adderall to stay up all night studying for tests, it’s pretty easy to see how that could lead to a less-than-honest approach to reporting a story.
6. Laziness. We’re in a tough business that demands discipline and putting in the time. Making stuff up is the lazy man’s (or woman’s) way out.
7. Ego. Marry a little early success with career aspirations and superior intelligence, and some people think norms and standards don’t apply to them, or that they won’t get caught.
8. Money. It no secret freelance rates haven’t budged in years – decades even – and in the case of writing for the web have even dropped, especially since content factories such as Demand Media and Associated Content have entered the picture. Freelance writers try to make up for falling rates by taking on more work. Even if you’re maxed out, it’s tough to say no to assignments when you know you’ve got bills to pay. But there’s only so much productivity you can squeeze out of yourself, and I say this as someone who’s spent the last year working a lot of those 12-hour days and 60-hour weeks.
What are your thoughts on why writers cheat?