By Braden Godley
Jayson Blair was a reporter who became notorious for his frivolous creation of details in his works. He worked under the New York Times (NYT) from 1998 to 2003, and his fabrication of stories over the course of almost five years of work went unnoticed until 2003, when the NYT exposed him in an article titled “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.” For many journalists, Jayson Blair’s story is a cautionary tale, illuminating the dangers of making journalistic fraud a habit.
Blair’s articles for the NYT can still be found preserved on the website, many followed by a few paragraphs of corrections: instances of fabrication, countless factual errors, and clear plagiarism. “A NATION AT WAR: MILITARY FAMILIES; Relatives of Missing Soldiers Dread Hearing Worse News,” is a good example of the extent of Blair’s journalistic fraud. The article details his visit to the Lynch household and his conversations with the Lynch family. Blair painted a picture with his words of the surrounding landscape and his soul-wrenching conversation with Mr. Lynch. However, further inquiry from the NYT revealed that he was never there, “… several people at the Lynch home — including photographers and other reporters — said they had not met or seen Mr. Blair there.”
Another article, headlined, “Peace and Answers Eluding Victims of the Sniper Attacks,” described the aftermath of the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks and the victims’ lives after the tragedy. The article had quotes that were later found to be fabricated, and others were stolen from different news companies. Blair’s article made quite a few false claims about a man named James Ballenger III, saying that he was a preacher, that he volunteered at the prison, and that he relied heavily on donations. Later, NYT found that none of this was true, “James Ballenger III said in a telephone interview that he is not a part-time preacher or any kind of preacher. Mr. Ballenger did not volunteer at the local prison; it was a paid position. He had not ”relied heavily” on donations from others; he said he accepts them but does not rely on them.”
These cases only scratch the surface of Blair’s journalistic fraud. During his time at NYT, Blair wrote over 600 articles, many of them containing some amount of fraudulent content.
According to an article published under Duke Reporters’ Lab (DRL), Blair appeared for questions from a class of Duke undergraduates. Since Blair’s was exposed for his fraud in 2003, he has reflected heavily on his actions. In DRL’s interview, he explained that he had a yet undiagnosed bipolar disorder and was recovering from a drugs and alcohol addiction, but he also added that his mental state shouldn’t be an excuse for his actions, rather that it was a fault of his character. Blair said that he wouldn’t seek to return to journalism, because he understands that he wouldn’t be hired by anybody, “I still love journalism. I miss it. (But) it just doesn’t work without the trust.”
Jayson Blair’s story begs the question of whether a person could be forgiven for such a breach of trust in journalism. But as Blair said, journalism requires trust; without it, there’s no reason for people to read the paper. Protecting and preserving the trust between reader and writer in the news industry by staying ethical should be the number one priority of any journalist.