Outsiders Praise ‘USA Today’ Probe of Ex-Reporter

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By: Joe Strupp

Two journalism industry leaders applauded USA Today’s lengthy report in Friday’s paper on the investigation of former reporter Jack Kelley’s ethical transgressions, which reportedly ranged from fabricating eyewitness accounts to coercing others to lie on his behalf.

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, agreed that the in-depth USA Today (Click for QuikCap) probe was necessary.

“It was entirely appropriate that they do a detailed account,” said Jones, a former editor at The New York Times and author of a respected history of the paper. “Ninety percent of what Jayson Blair did [at The New York Times] was trivial — but for USA Today, it was a prominant and recognized reporter. … The crime, I considered to be a serious one and the fact that these careful and retrospective pieces are done is important.”

Downie, a 40-year Post veteran who began as an intern, echoed Jones’ view. “It appears that USA Today’s editors and reporters have done a very thorough job of checking on the veracity of this reporter’s work,” Downie said. “A newspaper’s credibility is the most important thing a newspaper has. They are going to the lengths needed to protect it.”

Jones and Downie dismissed concerns that the in-depth investigation might cause editors at other papers to react hastily when confronted with potential mistakes by reporters.

“You need to explain to readers if you make a terrible mistake,” Downie said. “Reporters must be accountable and, above all, honest.”

Jones agreed. “This is a mechanism for keeping the trust,” he said. “I think journalists who are doing an honest job will welcome it.” The lesson for the industry? “Even if you get away with it today, you may not get away with it tomorrow because someone is going to go back and look,” Jones said. “This will do nothing but make reporting better.”

Jones added that the investigation required detailed examination because of the prominence Kelley had at the paper as one of its longest-serving and most honored reporters, who had also earned Pulitzer Prize consideration. “He was one of a handful of the most respected reporters at USA Today,” Jones said.

USA Today’s two-page report, which ran across opposing inside pages, included several stories detailing areas of Kelley’s work, dating back to 1993, that were either proven to be inaccurate or lacking enough proof to be considered credible.

The report followed weeks of review by eight USA Today staffers, who examined more than 700 articles by Kelley, dating back more than 10 years.

Among the paper’s findings, as reported Friday:

* Significant parts of one of Kelley’s most gripping stories, an eyewitness account of a suicide bombing that helped make him a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, are untrue. Kelley told readers he saw the bomber. But the man he described could not have been the bomber, according to the newspaper’s investigation.

* Kelley’s explanations of how he reported stories from Egypt, Russia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Israel, Cuba and Pakistan were contradicted by hotel, phone or other records or sources he said would confirm them.

* Kelley wrote scripts to help at least three people mislead USA Today reporters trying to verify his work, documents retrieved from his company-owned laptop computer show. Two of the people are translators Kelley paid for services months or years before. Another is a Jerusalem businessman, portrayed by Kelley as an undercover Israeli agent.

* In speeches to groups such as the Evangelical Press Association, Kelley talked of events that never occurred.

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