After working at USA Today for 21 years, War Correspondent Jack Kelley resigned on Jan. 6, 2004 during an investigation of his work. An anonymous letter that was sent to the publication’s then executive editor, Brian Gallagher, sparked the investigation in May 2003. The staff first investigated Kelley’s 1999 story in which he wrote in-detail about a three-ring notebook where he reported to have seen information on ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Without anyone to confirm the story, Kelley offered the investigation a translator’s name. However, it was discovered that the translator was hired by Kelley to read from a script- something they would find was not a new tactic for Kelley.
USA Today then launched an investigation of 720 stories by the five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, and found more fabrication in Kelley’s works. They released a series of articles in March 2004 detailing their findings.
A final investigation resulted in the release of a 28-page report on April 22, 2004. It was a harsh analysis of the newspaper, and revealed Kelley’s frequent use of anonymous sources were often illegitimate. He had plagiarized quotes and other materials, lied in speeches for the newspaper and used false sources to cover his tracks when people questioned his work.
On April 20, 2004, Karen Jurgensen, USA Today top editor, resigned because of her work with Kelley. Soon after her resignation, Hal Ritter, managing editor, also resigned and Brian Gallagher, executive editor, stepped down to an editorial page editor.
USA Today reported on their own story through statements, the final investigation report and retractions. Although it was ultimately Kelley who lied and stole material, the newspaper has an obligation to the public to make sure its writers are telling the truth. The 2004 investigation report said news editors and other USA Today staff members were not as concerned about reporters getting the facts right as they were with producing better stories than their competitors. From the 2004 report, Kelley said when USA Today’s policy changed in 1995 to allow confidential sources to compete with other media, he felt pressured to perform at a higher level. That policy made it easier for him to get away with using false anonymous sources, embellishing portions or complete situations and lifting quotes from other major publications without editors noticing.
The 2004 final report on the Kelley investigation pointed out USA Today’s biggest mistakes:
1. Kelley’s editors and co-workers had heard questions about his work from other reports and outside sources as far back as 1991, yet an investigation of his work was not addressed until the anonymous letter.
2. A “virus of fear” was present in the news section of the paper, preventing staff from complaining about Kelley.
3. Kelley was credited as the paper’s “star,” and his friendships with USA Today executives helped keep his lies unknown and his name unquestionable.
4. The editor’s did not follow their guidelines and policies before printing Kelley’s work. The editor’s trust in Kelley let him abuse the use of anonymous sources, and without following their policies they have caused harm to the paper.
5. The report suggests USA Today’s lines of communication through sections and levels of employment were broken, contributing to the continued publication of Kelley’s false work.
6. The previous investigations were not conclusive in revealing Kelley’s fraud because it was done to prove he had done nothing wrong. However, this report says otherwise.
The conflicting values USA Today dealt with included telling the truth, trusting its staff, making money, accepting criticism and increasing its audience.
Is it accurate for USA Today to relax its fact and source verification methods in order to compete with other publications for the best stories?
USA Today’s value of telling the truth was pushed aside while the staff struggled to compete for the best stories. USA Today’s ethical policy to be accountable was undermined by the trust of their staff, especially their “star,” Jack Kelley. The newspaper’s repeated refusal to correctly address the outside and inside criticism of Kelley’s work ultimately damaged the newspaper, each reporter, journalists everywhere and their audience.