‘Public Shame Makes Me Uncomfortable’: O’Colly Editor at OK State Explains Why She Decided to Not Print Lying Reporter’s Name

Sally Asher, editor-in-chief of The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University, recently grappled with an ethics call so agonizing she reached out to her fellow staffers, the paper’s faculty adviser, an OSU journalism ethics professor, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, her parents, one of her brothers, her roommate, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s roommate.

Their advice varied. Some mentioned mercy, others retribution. One warned of potential legal trouble. Many admitted being more unsure than resolute about where they stood.

All the conversations, competing sentiments and related emotions centered on a single question: Should Asher share with readers the name of a reporter caught fabricating sources?

As I previously posted, a student reporter for the O’Colly has been lying for two semesters, making up sources and screwing up some stories. Asher confronted and fired her soon after learning of the deception. She also penned a note of apology and explanation to readers, outlining specifics about the tainted articles and details about new policies the paper is implementing to help ensure a similar transgression does not happen again.

1

Asher faced no qualms about any of those decisions or actions. Yet, again and again and again, she anguished over whether to call out the reporter by name in her note — leaving a Google print pockmark sure to follow her far past graduation.

The O’Colly editorial board ultimately chose to not disclose her name.

2In a conversation she was kind enough to grant last night, Asher spoke candidly and thoughtfully about the many, many factors influencing what may seem at first glance like a simple, albeit Shakespearean-ish decision: To name or not to name?

A sampling of the factors she considered: the nature and frequency of the deception; the staffer’s experience level and seemingly genuine acknowledgment of her misdeeds; reader loyalty; basic human kindness; a quandary over where blame really lies when unethical behavior occurs; the perception or reality of a double standard for the paper when dealing with sources and story focuses versus its own staffers; and the hard truth that withholding someone’s name is no longer a real roadblock for those who want to find it and share it with the world (wide web).

Below is a chunk of our Q&A.

How did you make the decision to withhold the reporter’s name in the note to readers?

We had a really, really hard time getting to the point where we realized what we wanted to do. The O’Colly hasn’t dealt with anything like this. There wasn’t a precedent to stand by. Part of the pressure was we were creating a precedent. We looked at major papers like The Tulsa World and The New York Times who have obviously dealt with stuff like this. They have policies in place. Being a student paper, we weren’t really sure what to do.

[The reporter] hasn’t worked for us too much. She wasn’t a really involved staffer. She’s written six stories over two semesters. But three of those stories had fake people in it. Half of her stuff was basically worthless. If it had been one of our editors or one of our really devoted staffers who’d written for us for a while we would have definitely put their name in the article. But since [the reporter] was not a huge part of the paper – she was pretty much a contributing staffer, I’m not even sure if she’s on payroll – we decided against it.

Of course there was a side of me that was like, ‘I want to make sure she never gets a job in journalism ever, ever, ever and I want to ruin her life and she deserves this and let’s throw her under the bus.’ But then there’s the other side of it that she’s a junior. She has a year and a half left here if she’s on schedule to graduate [on time]. If somebody got fired from The Tulsa World for this they’d be able to leave and go to another paper in another area and wouldn’t have to be around the same people every day. But this girl still has a year and a half left. She still has to go to school with the students and professors who know her.  We weren’t comfortable putting the Scarlet Letter on her because she was going to be here.

Like you said [in my previous blog post about the incident] you found who she was in 90 seconds. We kind of did that on purpose. If people really wanted to figure it out, they could. We just didn’t want to put it out there ourselves. …

The paper is a learning lab, but it’s also professional. We compete with The Oklahoman and The Tulsa World and the Stillwater NewsPress every day. For us, taking away that chance for her to get clips and networking and experience, I think that’s punishment enough. But in five minutes, you know, I might get really mad about it and regret not printing her name [laughs]. I don’t think there’s a right answer to this. I completely understand why people are so mad we didn’t print her name. And if we did print her name, I think a lot of people would come forward and be angry that I did.

You mentioned not having a direct precedent to pull from when making the decision. Without one, how do you judge the crime versus the punishment? If she had engaged in more elaborate fabricating or had plagiarized instead, would you possibly have come to a different decision?

Yeah, if she had plagiarized, I would have slapped her name on the front of the paper. Not only are we not supposed to plagiarize in the paper, but from the beginning of college in every single syllabus they have the academic dishonesty policy. It is nailed into your brain that you don’t plagiarize. I think, next to fabricating, plagiarizing is a cardinal sin in our profession. If she had plagiarized, we would have had a different outcome in this.

So in the scheme of things, you don’t hold up fabrication, like making up full human beings out of thin air, as quite as much of a cardinal sin?

I think if she had made up every single one of her sources and not even put in the effort to go to the events she covered and talk to real people then I probably would have printed her name. It’s kind of a case-by-case situation. You have to weigh it differently every time. It’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all policy for stuff like this. Every case is different.

You mentioned the mercy angle and doing right by her as editor-in-chief. How do you balance that against what you feel readers of the O’Colly either deserve or expect?

That was a really hard one. I was writing the editorial Tuesday night. I probably should have started it earlier considering all the back-and-forth I went through while writing it. Yes, my readers deserve the truth and they should hear everything that happened. But with the transparency argument, where’s the line?

I talked to some of the agencies and departments she had fabricated against, like Outdoor Adventures, which ran the triathlon she reported on. They never called for her name [to be printed]. They just wanted corrections. We talked to Residential Life. She wrote a story on a new residence hall being built and made up sources for that. They never called for her name either.

There are people out there who love to gossip and they’re curious and want to know who it was. We’re not stopping them from finding the information, because like you said you found it in 90 seconds. People can go and pick up physical copies of the paper and find her articles with her name on them. I think we supplied them with enough information to find out who she was, but I was not quite comfortable with just throwing it out there.

One of the things I can’t wrap my head around centers on just how significant or newsworthy her name actually is. There’s the transparency argument for readers certainly. But in the scheme of things … she’s not a superstar reporter who everyone will know immediately. Beyond the mercy angle, do you feel also her name is maybe just not that newsworthy in the end?

She’s not a well-known reporter. She’s not even an outstanding student in the communications school. The only thing significant thing about her is she’s dating one of our baseball players, which is apparently a big deal but I don’t really care about that [laughs].

Our editors and I discussed, ‘Well what are we going to accomplish by printing her name other than ruining her life? Is there any other good that’s going to come out of it other than maybe us feeling better about it for a bit?’ Honestly, we couldn’t really justify it. …

I want to make it clear that we’re not trying to protect her. If we were trying to protect her we would have gone through the archives online and taken down all the PDFs and made sure we got everything off Twitter and Facebook and everything. People are going to find out who she is regardless. I don’t want to try to stop them from finding out. There are people who are curious and want to know. People are going look her up on Facebook. They’re going to see her in class and know, ‘That’s the girl.’ Others probably don’t care. And for those people I didn’t feel like we needed to push it on them. Public shame makes me uncomfortable.

The biggest argument I’ve seen from people who disagree with the decision is that this would not be a courtesy you would extend to someone you were covering on campus — like a student government leader who lied or maybe someone arrested for a more minor crime like underage drinking. What’s your counter to that argument, the idea that it presents a double standard?

As far as crimes go, we don’t print as much as we used to. … So, for example, something like underage drinking wouldn’t go in the paper unless it was a high-profile person or related to a high-profile person. For student government leaders and university officials, I think we do hold them to a higher standard. If the SGA president was lying about money for his own gain, we probably would print that because it impacts a lot of students. And not that the reporter’s lying didn’t impact students, but she’s not as high profile. …

We’ve been working on getting a crime log and getting all the arrest affidavits and mugshots from the campus police every week and do that online. I think when we do start doing that a lot of things will change. Our statements and policies might change.

I’m getting the vibe from talking with you now — and from your note to readers in which you admit you “anguished with the decision” — that it’s still not something you’re pretending you’re 110 percent behind without any wavering or doubt. It’s still an agonizing decision, isn’t it?

What it really came down to is that I could have gone both ways. But whatever I was going to do, I wanted to have my editors behind me. We couldn’t all get behind printing her name. On this, we all needed to be unified. And everyone was OK with not printing her name, for the most part. That was a big part of it. We couldn’t all agree on printing it, but we were all OK with not printing it.

Related

Ethics Alert: Should Student Reporter Who Fabricated Sources Be Outed by Editors?

Comments
4 Responses to “‘Public Shame Makes Me Uncomfortable’: O’Colly Editor at OK State Explains Why She Decided to Not Print Lying Reporter’s Name”
  1. Bryan Murley says:

    “Yeah, if she had plagiarized, I would have slapped her name on the front of the paper. Not only are we not supposed to plagiarize in the paper, but from the beginning of college in every single syllabus they have the academic dishonesty policy. It is nailed into your brain that you don’t plagiarize. I think, next to fabricating, plagiarizing is a cardinal sin in our profession. If she had plagiarized, we would have had a different outcome in this.”

    Wait, what? Plagiarizing is a cardinal sin, but making stuff up isn’t?

  2. Will says:

    Not sure why Asher says there isn’t precedence for this when Jaclyn Cosgrove fired and outed a reporter for plagiarism back in 2008.

    http://www.orangepower.com/threads/apology-to-o%E2%80%99colly-readers.55571/

    http://web.archive.org/web/20081003223337/http://ocolly.com/2008/09/29/apology-to-o%E2%80%99colly-readers/

    Asher must not know how search engines work.

  3. The editor here makes the mistake of confusing ‘mercy’ for public accountability. Forget about the perpetrator, once he is gone, it becomes solely about the newspaper’s credibility. And the newspaper has an obligation to be as transparent as possible when it comes to its readers’ trust.

  4. Bryan Dean says:

    This decision has bothered me from the start, and this interview has made it worse. Asher clearly does not understand how serious an offense this is. Fabricating is the worst thing you can do as a journalist. Yes, it is even worse than plagiarism. It goes against the most important defining characteristic of journalism. We write non-fiction. If you can’t grasp that, you need to pick a different career. Period. The editorial board needs to concern itself less with protecting the feelings of a reporter who fabricated and more with the responsibility and accountability they owe to the public.