Joining the ranks of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair is no great honor. But Claas Relotius has no choice.
Mr. Glass was the rising-star journalist at the respected publication The New Republic who, it was revealed in 1998, had fabricated many of the stories he had written for the magazine. He had invented quotations, sources and even entire events in his reportage, leading to his firing, and a place in journalistic ignominy.
Several years later, in 2003, The New York Times suffered its own mammoth embarrassment, when a celebrated reporter of its own, Mr. Blair, was discovered to have plagiarized other writers’ work and fabricated stories of his own.
Enter, of late, Mr. Relotius, a German journalist who, after writing for a number of periodicals in his native country, joined the staff of the respected daily Der Spiegel. The paper published nearly 60 articles by Mr. Relotius since 2011, all of which included compelling and fascinating details, and the reporter, only 33 years old, won many awards for his work, including CNN Journalist of the Year in 2014 and the European Press Prize in 2017.
Unfortunately, his work, like that of Messrs. Glass and Blair before him, turned out to include fictions disguised as facts.
Der Spiegel recently made public that its wunderkind reporter admitted to having “falsified his articles on a grand scale, inventing facts, persons and quotations in at least 14 of his stories” for the paper. A whistle-blower at the paper, moreover, claimed that editors at Der Spiegel had dismissed his earlier suspicions and those of other journalists as having been motivated by jealousy of Mr. Relotius’ professional successes.
The revelations have, not unsurprisingly, been named “Spiegelgate.”
The fabulist was aided by the fact that he wrote in German for a German readership, and often about America; few of his articles were translated into English. Mr. Relotius’ credibility was in fact called into question when residents of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, noticed that a piece Mr. Relotius had written about the town was rife with non-existent details. One resident noted that “In 7,300 words he really only got our town’s population and average annual temperature correct.”
Der Spiegel dedicated an entire issue to a lengthy apology, lamenting that neither its editors nor its fact-checkers had spotted the lies in the compromised reports, even though some were fairly brazen and could have been easily uncovered with internet searches.
But, as it happened, Mr. Relotius had gone to great lengths to create a “fact” trail to cover his deceit, going so far as to create fake documents and emails corroborating claims made in his stories.
Subsequently, it was learned that Mr. Relotius’ dishonesty had a criminal aspect to it as well. In 2016, in an article about an ostensibly orphaned Syrian brother and sister, he urged readers to donate money to the children, but the bank account number he provided turned out to be that of his own personal account. A Turkish photographer who worked with him on the article said that Relotius had also fabricated details — including the existence of the sister.
To its credit, Der Spiegel did not try to minimize the damage caused by its lapse to the endeavor of journalism, providing full transparency about how it had been duped, including a detailed description of the sequence of events. And it publicly pledged to make changes in its operation, to ensure that every claim made in reports will be double-checked for factualness.
Although the now-trio of names synonymous with fictitious journalism masquerading as truth will likely be on the lips of editors and journalism students for years to come, it’s unlikely that the threesome represents the sum total of irresponsible reporters in news media.
What is more, entirely fabricated people and happenings are, in the end, not the most insidious elements in reckless reportage. Untrue “facts” can certainly be manufactured, as The New Republic, the New York Times and Der Spiegel can attest, by unscrupulous, ambitious or larcenous reporters. But actual facts, too, can also be misrepresented, presented out of context or subtly couched in ways that mislead readers. There have been numerous such cases over many years, particularly in general Jewish media, of irresponsible reportage about the Orthodox Jewish community.
And, in the greater world, partisan media, across the political spectrum, have also shown a talent for selective and prejudiced reportage.
Mr. Relotius, it was reported, told some of his former colleagues at Der Spiegel that he was sick and needed to get help. The same diagnosis and need might well be applied to the larger patient that is contemporary journalism.