How to kill your journalism career: The story of J.

We cover a lot of countries here at Trombly Ltd. Some of these countries speak other languages. So we’re always looking for reporters with go od language skills.

J. was perfect. Young, ambitious, had the languages we needed — plus, with journalism experience.

She wrote ten articles for us. Sure, her work needed work. She needed to improve her reporting, story organization, and grammar and style. But she was well on her way to becoming a solid international business journalism. Plus, we were getting in assignments on the movie industry — just up her alley.

On Wednesday, I took her to a meeting with a local media executive who liked her background and was interested in helping us put her on TV.

On Thursday, I offered her a part-time assignment editing gig for one of our publications, on top of the other work she was doing, and started up the process for getting her a key to the office and a pass to the building, and a new set of business card with her name on them. Later on, if everything went right, we would have gotten her accredited, and she’d become an international correspondent.

And by “international correspondent” I mean someone who works for the top tier of publications. These are the publications that pay enough so that you can travel, buy a house, have children anywhere in the world.

This is a small group of publications, mostly based in the US and Europe, with a few in Asia, and they’re shrinking. Moreover, the budget these publications allocate to international reporting isn’t getting any bigger, either.

It’s a hard market to break into. You have to have the experience they need. You have to demonstrate ability and connections. And you have to be able to gain their trust. After all, it’s hard for an editor to manage a reporter who’s based on the other side of the planet.

If the reporter is still one desk over, you can easily see whether he’s on the job, how many phone calls he makes. When he goes out on assignment and brings back into, you know whether he did a good job covering the event because you’ve been working in this area for a long time, and may have, perhaps, covered it yourself in the past. Sure, frauds still slip through — like the New York Times’ Jason Blair — but then your readers will usually let you know.

With foreign reporters, you don’t know the beats that they’re covering. You don’t know the topics that they’re covering. And your readers usually can’t act as a fail-safe fact-checking mechanism because they don’t have first-hand experience of what the reporter is covering, either.

As a result, publications typically send trusted, senior writers to overseas assignments. These guys are expensive — but they know what they’re doing, and they don’t need constant supervision.

These are hard-to-get, high-profile, glamorous assignments. You don’t just walk into them. You spend years working your way up.

There are short cuts, however, and our bureau is one of them.

We hire young, inexperienced writers. We train them, and we supervise them. We help them find people to talk to. We help them figure out which questions to ask. We help them organize their stories and improve their English grammar. We help them decide which stories ideas are interesting — and which ones are the same old, same old.

Finally, J. had learned enough about our databases and processes to work on her own. Her task was to find someone to comment about a particular news development. She had a number of people she could try to reach — and she only needed one quote for this particular story, a 250-word brief.

She had everything she needed to make the calls.

But instead of calling, she pulled a quote from an old article from another publication, translated it into English, and put it into the story. More than that, she didn’t just plagiarize the quote — she added in the story that the source talked to her, personally.

We caught the problem immediately — before the story even went out for copy editing.

There was no reason to do this. It would have only taken a few minutes to actually call the source and get the quote. Maybe a little longer if the first guy wasn’t available. Maybe a couple of hours if she had to call several different companies.

Why did she do this? Not just “accidentally” copying something and “forgetting” to attribute it properly — that happens, we catch it, issue warnings, help the writer avoid such mistakes in the future. (If they keep making these “mistakes,” though, they’re out.)

This was an out-and-out lie.

I would guess that the lie saved her, most likely, 30 minutes of reporting time.

And, most likely, it killed her career.

I may have given her a second chance, but my business manager and Shanghai bureau manager forcefully overruled me. The risk to the company’s reputation was too great – and the risks of setting a precedent too severe — to allow her to remain in the office at any capacity.

We also pulled her previous ten articles and re-checked the sourcing of all stories. For two stories, we opened her company email account and checked for email confirmations of the quotes.

Then we notified all the clients whose stories she worked on — all US-based business publications — and explained what happened.

It is possible that J.’s career will recover from this. There are other news organizations in China, and she might also be able to report for smaller news organizations overseas, especially ones who require her language skills.

She’s very lucky that her fraudulent story wasn’t printed. If it had been, we would have had to run her name along with the correction — and any future editor who Googled her would have known what she did.

In Shanghai,

– Maria