Letters for June 16-22, 2005

The Sun-Sentinel Responds

Don't do it, kids: Chuck Strouse's June 9 column about wayward high school journalist Nazish Ahmad ("Steal This Prose") should serve as a cautionary tale for big-league newsrooms, mine included, but he stopped me in my tracks when he wrote, "The young woman was pushed too hard, too early, and wasn't given sufficient instruction."

Last July, I spoke to the Sun-Sentinel high school summer interns during an orientation program, and although I don't recall Ahmad personally, I do remember quite clearly two main points I hammered home to the young'uns:

(1) Don't plagiarize.

(2) Don't make stuff up.

I told them that if they ever ran into a jam, ever needed more time, ever didn't have all the facts, quotes, or sources for their stories, they should just tell their editors. Empty space on a page, I told them, is far less damaging than a fraudulent piece.

I also told them that if they couldn't adhere to these commandments, they shouldn't be in journalism, and that if they felt the need to engage in fiction, they should sign up for creative writing in college.

I'll be giving the same talk to our new crop of interns in a few weeks. Maybe this time they'll listen.

Michael Mayo, Metro Columnist

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

She didn't go to the front lines immediately: I read with interest Chuck Strouse's column about Nazish Ahmad, the South Florida high school student who was caught plagiarizing stories in the Sun-Sentinel and with forging a recommendation letter for a Miami Herald contest.

I have a real problem with the assertion that "Daily newspapers have become so desperate to attract young readers these days that they have sent the kids to the front lines too early" and that desperation to attract those readers played a supporting role in why Ahmad did what she did.

The Sun-Sentinel has run a program for young journalists for more than a decade. I was in one of the first variations of the high school journalism program, and in 1991, at the age of 16, I wrote my first story for the Sun-Sentinel -- a hard-hitting piece about my high school's principal moving to another school. I was a real reporter.

Contrary to Strouse's assertion, at the time, I was not merely a young reporter "sent... to the front lines" without training. We had an editor. We were given numerous lessons on writing and reporting. Chief among those lessons: Under no circumstances were we to copy other people's work or make things up.

The students in today's program still get those same exact lessons. I'm one of the many reporters at the newspaper who speaks to young journalists when they come into the newspaper's Next Generation high school program.

The point of all this: Ahmad knew -- either because I told her or someone else told her during her time here -- that plagiarizing or making up facts is a cardinal sin of journalism.

Programs such as the Sun-Sentinel's play a major role in helping young reporters get their start. Count me as one of those who is grateful for the chance.

Kathy Bushouse, Staff Writer

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Never bash the editor out of hand: Let me say, first of all, I am not one of the reporters in the South Florida press corps who bashes Chuck Strouse out of hand. I think what he and the other contributors do with the media-watch-style articles at New Times is valid and fair. While I don't agree with everything Strouse writes, I firmly believe all reporters, myself included, should be held accountable for what they write.

As a founding member of the Sun-Sentinel's high school correspondence program (I was one of the original eight Broward County public school students selected for the program back in 1991; my first column was published when I was 17), I must respectfully disagree with some of the points he made in his recent article about Nazish Ahmad, "Steal This Prose."

First of all, this newspaper doesn't simply throw high school kids into the jungle with the same kind of pressure that we as full-time journalists work under. Our interns are not only assigned editors but also mentors -- reporters who work with the youth on a less formal basis -- as a matter of routine.

Second -- and I'm an example of this -- many of the teens who seek to break into the newspaper business early do so because of a genuine love for writing. Unfortunately, I have met some people in this business who are simply obsessed with seeing their byline in the paper and have a narcissistic need to get recognition, such as awards and scholarships, at the cost of credibility or a sense of ethics. But I believe those few do not make the norm. Can Strouse produce empirical evidence showing a widespread problem resulting from the alleged pressure that mainstream newspapers place on youth?

Third, I know now -- and I certainly knew back then -- that if I purposely lied or misrepresented facts in a newspaper article, that would be the end of my career. Although I never spoke to Ahmad, I cannot imagine she wasn't taught the same. Hopefully, she and the rest of us can learn from this example.

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