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Interview: Jerry Ceppos

Plagiarism a widespread problem at newspapers, former Knight Ridder exec says

But ignoring important stories isn't an ethical issue

Jerry Ceppos

Until last September, Jerry Ceppos was the vice president for news at Knight Ridder, the person in charge of journalism ethics for the nation's second largest newspaper chain. In a discussion begun just after his departure and continuing more recently by e-mail, he expressed concerns about the craft he practiced for 36 years.

Mr. Ceppos, who oversaw the journalistic practice of thousands of reporters and editors across the country, told Grade the News:

What are some of the ethical issues that concern you?

The number of times plagiarism has come up makes me say that we don't know what's going on out there. I hate to say this, but I guarantee you that in every newsroom in America there's some plagiarism.

Like one reporter, or five?

I don't know. And part of the problem is that everyone's definition of plagiarism is different. But whatever the lowest standard is, I think it's probably going on out there.

What's being done about it?

We did a few things. Knight Ridder has about as close to a zero-tolerance rule as you can get. We decided -- and this happened at the highest levels, Tony Ridder -- that when someone is fired because of plagiarism, when a reference check comes in, we will not say, "that's a personnel matter, I can't tell you what happened." We'll say, "the guy was fired for plagiarism."

So at least we're not being codependents or enablers.

Ethics seems pretty clear when you're talking about not plagiarizing. Do you think that news selection -- the balance between news that people need vs. news that they merely want -- is an ethical concern as well?

No. News judgment is the sum of all of our experiences. Unless truly venal motives are dictating our news play -- taking a payoff from a local advertiser or something -- I have some trouble seeing [an ethical issue].

Would you include in "venal" trying to maximize return to shareholders?

I'm just thinking of the way that the mind of the journalist works. And for all the tens of thousands of news meetings that I've been in over the years, I can never remember an editor saying, "Gee, let's put this on page one because it maximizes return to shareholders." It just doesn't work that way.

What do you think is the purpose of news?

The most basic purpose of news would be to tell us how our government is being operated and to let us have some impact on changing it. And from there, I would interpret news very broadly. I think news also should teach me how to operate my daily life.

I think news is also telling me how much the house down the street sold for. It used to be telling me why I saw a police car at the neighbor's house, although that seems to have gone away. I have a pretty broad interpretation of news that kicks in if the basic bases are being covered.

You mentioned that the primary purpose of journalism is to empower citizens to understand and act on the world.

Yes.

If a news medium fails at its core purpose, that's not an ethical issue?

It seems to me there are so many different sources of news. No longer is the one daily newspaper in town the source of all wisdom. My answer might have been a little different 30 years ago, but if you think about the Bay Area, if you think about all of those newspapers, if you think about all the radio and TV stations, and then if you think about the Internet, I don't worry very much about people getting the news if they want it.

So the fact that there are alternatives takes any ethical onus off of a single news organization for doing what you said journalism's purpose was?

No, because you said it takes any ethical onus off. It's not any, but it sure takes a lot of the onus off.

When you think about consequences of actions, [former New York Times reporter] Jayson Blair's borrowing some other reporter's version of an event is a misrepresentation. The reader probably didn't notice. And the other reporter's description was probably as good as Jayson would have come up with had he bothered to be there. It seems to me the harm done to society by borrowing another reporter's work is minor compared the harm done to society by what one chooses to put in a newscast or newspaper.

For example, we looked at the amount of time that the Bay Area's most prominent English-speaking newscasts put into covering the March 2 primary in 2004. And we found that the three major stations in San Francisco, channels 4, 5 and 7, none of them surpassed one minute of substantive campaign coverage in their premier evening newscast in two of the three weeks prior to that election.

That election had 65 ballot initiatives of various levels, some state, some county and some city, and all of the elections across the nine-county Bay Area. Now, the harm done by that decision, would it be greater or less than the harm done by readers reading a different reporter's version of a fire?

I will disagree again. I see them as two entirely different baskets. One of them was a clear ethical breach that was hidden from readers and editors. And the other -- I'm not justifying it -- the other strikes me as poor news judgment, total lack of knowledge of your viewers and sort of undervaluing your viewers. But I don't see it as an ethical issue. I would see it as an ethical issue if the coverage were tilted one way or another. But I don't see it as an ethical breach.

How about the growing public mistrust of newspapers?

What fascinates me is the difference between the definition of fairness, between us and the public. There's just no comparison.

[There were] a few recent questions where newspapers felt they had really gone out of their way to be fair and the public disagreed. One was the case of the politician who committed suicide in the Miami Herald lobby. The picture that ran in most editions was of the politician on the floor of the Herald lobby and, in fact, a little bit of blood could be seen. What we would say is they had two policemen standing there too, so it was not an in-your-face sort of picture, but more of a contextual scene.

Two different readers from Ft. Lauderdale called me and we were on different planets when we were talking. And they were very moving calls.

They were African American readers and the politician was African American. The first complaint was that it was the press that took him down. The Herald had a number of stories about some of his problems. They sort of said, "You, the white media, took him down." They said there are plenty of crooked politicians of other ethnicities -- and boy, in Miami that happens to be true. And my answer was, "Yeah the Herald has been pretty brutal on those guys too." It didn't penetrate. Or maybe their comments didn't penetrate me.

The second issue was, "Not only did you take him down, but then you run this gruesome picture." The comment that I must say made me stop in my tracks was, "How would you like it if that had been your relative?"

I tried to explain that the Herald has rules for suicide coverage. He was a prominent person and he did it in the Herald lobby, so it met all of our criteria.

It was like talking to someone from Mars. And I say that with respect because they are saying, "Rules for suicide coverage? Give me a break. You were just out to get this guy."

Certainly journalists study ethics a lot and talk about ethics a lot. I'm not sure they do it with readers or viewers. It concerns me that so many readers and viewers are now saying, "I'm going to tune you out because you're biased, you're unfair." Because if that were to continue and grow, our society isn't built to function with people saying, "We don't believe journalists."

It worries me. So there's something interesting in my mind about how we educate the public. You have a scorecard and the public can become involved. I'd like to see that grow ... [teaching] how to tell if their media are fair.

How about educating journalists?

It's funny that, to my knowledge, there's only one journalism school that has said we're going to carve out ethics as a subject, and that's Washington and Lee. But they have a relatively small program.

Terry Hynes of [the University of] Florida just did a study. I just find it fascinating that only half the accredited journalism programs require an ethics course, [although] many of them offer a course. Isn't that weird?

Think about this: I have no idea whether ethics is required at medical schools. But consider how you would feel if your doctor did not take an ethics course.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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