The Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has hired an outside investigator to look into possible fabrication stories by Darien and New Canaan News reporter Paresh Jha who recently received awards from the society.
Last Friday, June 22, David McCumber, editorial director of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which owns the two weekly newspapers, said 25 stories by Jha over the last 18 months or so used “quotes from non-existent sources.”
McCumber said every story in the 22 months Jha had written for the organization was being scrutinized for fabrication.
Luther Turmelle, director of Region 1 of the Society of Professional Journalists, which includes Connecticut, told The Darien Times Friday morning the board recently overwhelmingly voted to conduct its own investigation of the award-winning stories.
SPJ has hired Roy Gutterman, a media law expert, associate professor and director of the Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech, to conduct the investigation.
“He is well regarded, we’ve known him for years,” Turmelle, who is the North Bureau Chief for the New Haven Register, said.
Jha won first place — according to a story that remains on both the New Canaan News and Darien News websites — in the community non-daily category, for his in-depth series, “Enabling underage partying.”
That story is no longer posted on either websites but did appear in both the Darien and New Canaan editions. In the story, Jha quotes Peg Allaway and her son Riley of New Canaan. Neither name appear locally in the white pages, on Facebook or through Google searches, as The Darien Times first reported this week.
He also won third place in the feature category in the community non-daily for a feature called “Teachers, students weigh in on Twain controversy,” about the decision to rewrite “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The Twain story remains online and checks by this newspaper for names of sources proved to exist.
The names created for other stories, taken down by Hearst, were not found anywhere else, as was first pointed out in an article by the Poynter Institute.
SPJ board member, Ricky Campbell, a staff reporter with The Register Citizen, recently told Poynter’s Craig Silverman that McCumber confirmed the first place story was fabricated, and confirmed the Twain story “checks out.”
On Tuesday, the official Twitter account of the Society of Professional Journalists tweeted a link to Poynter’s coverage of the Jha story, saying the former reporter might have fabricated more stories than infamous serial fabricator Stephen Glass, immortalized in the movie “Shattered Glass.”
The most recent count, including the first prize-winning story about underage drinking, and a story about a likely fictional wedding planner discovered by The Darien Times, brings the known total of fabricated stories possibly up to 27.
Poynter called Jha “one of the worst serial fabricators in recent journalistic history.”
Hearst has still not released a full list of fabricated stories.
However, Turmelle said the board would not rely on confirmation from Hearst without doing its own investigation.
“I understand, it is an embarrassing situation for them,” he said.
“However, in my experience, when there’s been a difficult situation for an individual, organization or company, the individual, organization or company is going to do what’s in their best interest,” he said.
Just as they will not rely on Hearst’s ruling, Turmelle said the board will not choose to yank the awards based on Poynter or other media reports.
Gutterman has been given a target time to present his findings by the second week of July, Turmelle said.
Turmelle said part of the reason for an outside investigation is that some of the board members have ties to Hearst, including outgoing president Cindy Simoneau, who is a consulting editor with the Connecticut Post, a Hearst paper.
Poynter also reported that Vinti Singh, a former Darien and New Canaan News reporter, also serves on the SPJ board, as does Jamie DeLoma, a part-time page designer and copy editor for Hearst.
Turmelle said he has worked with these board members for years and this in no way “casts aspersions” on them, nor would they jeopardize the investigation.
The efforts to use an independent investigator is to “preserve the sanctity and transparency” of the SPJ’s efforts, and not give any cause for anyone to cry favoritism, Turmelle said.
Using the outside investigator is the “right thing to do,” he said.
“And with Roy’s respected background in the media and familiarity with the law, there’s no one better,” Turmelle said.
The Darien News, formerly the Darien News-Review, has links to the oldest newspaper in Darien but has been owned by various corporations for the past couple decades. It closed its offices in Darien a few years ago after it was bought by Hearst, which also now owns the Stamford Advocate.
The Darien Times is the last newspaper and news website still based in Darien, on the third floor of the downtown Corbin Building. The Times is owned by Hersam Acorn, which is based in New Canaan and Ridgefield.