There is an implied contract between a newspaper and its readers. The paper prints the truth. Readers believe that it’s true.
It’s not always so simple, of course. There are nuances in how a story is presented, what words are used to describe the action. Papers have personalities, and no two are exactly alike, but at the end of the day, facts are facts. And a good newspaper holds nothing more sacred than its role to tell the truth. Always. As fully and as fairly as possible.
This is our guiding principle, so it is with heavy heart that we tell you the Cape Cod Times has broken that trust. An internal review has found that one of our reporters wrote dozens of stories that included one or more sources who do not exist.
The reporter was Karen Jeffrey, 59, a writer for the Cape Cod Times since 1981. In an audit of her work, Times editors have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998, when we began archiving stories electronically.
On Tuesday, Jeffrey admitted to fabricating people in some of these articles and giving some others false names. She no longer works for the Cape Cod Times.
We were able to verify sourcing in many stories written by Jeffrey, mostly police and court news, political stories, and recently a series on returning war veterans. The stories with suspect sourcing were typically lighter fare — a story on young voters, a story on getting ready for a hurricane, a story on the Red Sox home opener — where some or all of the people quoted cannot be located.
In 2011, for example, a story on the Fourth of July parade in Cotuit featured Johnson Coggins, 88, “the patriarch of the family” and a longtime Cotuit summer resident. No one by that name can be found using public-records searches and there is no Coggins in the town of Barnstable’s assessor’s database. We were unable to locate five other people featured in that story.
In a 2006 story on the Falmouth Road Race, we were unable to find five individuals, including Daniel Fortes of San Diego, a marathon runner who, Jeffrey wrote, has run the Boston Marathon and the Falmouth race but was sidelined with an injury that year. Fortes could not be found using public records and no one with that name had competed in the Falmouth race or the Boston Marathon for the five years leading up to the story, according to the races’ websites.
Times editors reviewed Jeffrey’s stories using a variety of search techniques, including a public-records database tool called Accurint, searches of voter rolls and town assessor’s records, a review of Facebook profiles and attempted phone calls, in an effort to find the sources.
The investigation of Jeffrey’s work began Nov. 12 when a Veterans Day assignment raised questions among editors, who decided to closely review the story Jeffrey wrote.
Jeffrey’s Veterans story begins this way:
“CHATHAM — Ronald Chipman and his family were strolling along Chatham’s Main Street when they noticed traffic slowed. A crowd of people gathered at the small rotary ahead.
“Flags, uniforms, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The Chipmans were momentarily puzzled.
“‘I looked at my wife. She looked back at me. We had the same guilty thought — Veterans Day — and we thought nothing about it except as a long weekend on the Cape until we saw that,’ said Chipman, 46, a Boston resident. ‘You live in the city and sometimes you forget about things like this — about things still mattering to people,’ he said.”
The editors were unable to find the Chipman family. When asked if she could help locate the family, Jeffrey said she could not because she threw away her notes.
A story a month earlier featured four people we could not find. Then another story with unfound sources. Then another. In our initial examination, going back to Aug. 1, 2011, we were unable to find 15 sources in six stories.
An expanded review of Jeffrey’s work uncovered dozens of additional stories with suspect sources. We spot-checked work prior to 1998, when we relied on paper clips for archives, but have not found any questionable sourcing. We do not have a full archive of each reporter’s clips prior to 1998.
A review of several other reporters’ work turned up sources without difficulty. We are confident this situation was isolated to Jeffrey.
How did this happen? Or more important, how did we allow this to happen? It’s a question we cannot satisfactorily answer. Clearly we placed too much trust in a reporter and did not verify sourcing with necessary frequency.
It’s an editor’s job to scrutinize a reporter’s work and be sure what we publish is fair and accurate; at the same time, there also is a level of trust between a reporter and an editor. Reporters take this responsibility to heart and when someone treats their work with anything less than the highest ethical standards, good journalists are heartbroken. We can say with certainty that’s how we feel at the Times.
We must learn from this painful lesson and take steps to prevent this from happening again. Moving forward, we will be spot-checking reporting sources more frequently, choosing stories at random and calling sources to verify they exist.
As always, we also invite you to let us know if there appears to be a mistake. We believe in transparency, and we welcome any feedback on any story at any time. Be assured we will use this incident as part of an ethics training session for newsroom staff.
We also are in the process of removing Jeffrey’s questionable stories or passages of stories from capecodonline.com and will replace the suspect content with a note that explains why it was removed. That process is beginning today.
This column is our first step toward addressing what we uncovered. We needed to share these details, as uncomfortable as they are, because we are more than a private company dealing with a personnel issue — we are a newspaper and we have broken our trust with you. We deeply regret this happened and extend our personal apology to you.