Ten Journalists Who Got Caught Faking the News

Journalists always try to get it right. It’s in the job description, after all. They are supposed to report on the news, tell the public what happened, and keep their readers or viewers informed about what is going on in the world when it comes to their beat—be it local politics, national politics, crime, or whatever else they may cover. And most journalists do get it right pretty much all the time.

The average reporter just wants to go out there and cover the things that happen and document them as they occur. But sadly, that’s not always the case. And when journalists falter on the facts or straight-up make stories up out of thin air, things get really treacherous really quickly.

In this list, we’ll take a look at ten journalists who were caught faking the news. These ten media members sadly cast a shadow over the whole profession thanks to their unfortunate actions. And their stories have lived on in infamy long after they were outed for making up stories, sources, quotes, and more.

Related: Top 10 News Stories That Help Re-Introduce Levity

10 Jayson Blair

Jayson Blair rose quickly from internships with major newspapers to a coveted full-time spot reporting for the New York Times by the early 2000s. His star was bright, and he was young, and it seemed like he might be able to really be something as a journalist and a media analyst through a long career. And then, in a flourish, it all came crashing down.

On April 28, 2003, Blair received a call from the national editor at the Times. He was asking Blair about a story he’d written two days before. That story was very similar to a story that was written by a journalist for the San Antonio Express-News in south Texas just a few days before that. When called upon the similarities, Blair balked and stumbled—and then he was caught.

The Times began an investigation into all of Blair’s stories. What they found was a stunning level of plagiarism.

Amazingly, he lifted quotes, paragraphs, and entire passages out of stories that had been written by other reporters. He put his byline and datelines on pieces in which he wasn’t actually in the city he claimed to be. He even straight-up fabricated sources and knowingly falsely claimed that various sources and experts were sitting in on various high-level meetings in his stories when they were not.

In May 2003, he submitted his resignation from the Times after it all came out in a public mess. The paper had to go back and painstakingly correct the record. Blair was forced to move on with his life after having been disgraced very publicly.

After being condemned fully by the NYT, Blair later revealed a bipolar diagnosis and then published a memoir of his life during that period. Later, he established a support group for people with bipolar disorder and started a life coaching business.[1]

9 Stephen Glass

Stephen Glass was a journalist working for the New Republic from 1995 through 1998, when it was revealed that he’d totally made up a story and was fired for the unfathomable act. Glass had run into trouble several times prior during his stay at TNR, with the subjects of multiple stories of his claiming he’d made up events and quotes and gotten key facts wrong.

However, his work stayed up, and he stayed employed—until the middle of 1998 when it all came crashing down. Glass had published a story about a computer-hacking teenager and the then-new phenomenon of internet hackers and their dealings with big business. The problem was that the article was totally phony!

A Forbes reporter named Adam Penenberg was amazed that his publication could have been scooped so badly by a weekly political publication on something that should have been in Forbes’s wheelhouse. So Penenberg went around to try to fact-check Glass’s work—and he found that he couldn’t confirm one single “fact” from the article.

Things all came to a head when Forbes presented their unsettling findings to TNR. The bosses at the New Republic took Glass to a hotel in Bethesda, Maryland, where Glass had claimed in his piece that there had been a “National Assembly of Hackers” conference. But the hotel wasn’t laid out at all like how Glass described it in his work.

In fact, neither Forbes nor TNR could find a single hacker who had ever heard of that “assembly.” Plus, key details in Glass’s piece didn’t match up with how the hotel actually operated. For example, a dinner Glass claimed the hackers had after the conference supposedly took place at a restaurant that, in actuality, closed every day after lunch. Oops!

When TNR lead editor Charles Lane found all these inconsistencies and grouped them together, he fired Glass on the spot. The disgraced journalist went to law school with the intention of being a lawyer, and he even passed the bar exam in both New York and California.

However, neither state admitted him to practice due to ethical concerns over his background making up the news. So he found work as a paralegal at a law firm and has since lived on in quiet privacy following his shocking scandal that rocked the media world.[2]

8 Janet Cooke

Janet Cooke was a journalist for the Washington Post when, in 1981, she received the Pulitzer Prize for writing a story about a supposed eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy who lived in the nation’s capital. Cooke’s writing was incredible, gut-wrenching, heartfelt, tragic, tear-jerking, and… totally made up.

After the article was published, it naturally created a firestorm of attention and anger at who could possibly let an eight-year-old become addicted to heroin. So other people around D.C., including policymakers, local politicians, and other journalists, tried hard to find this supposed child heroin addict named “Jimmy” and his addled mother. But nobody could find them.

Soon, discrepancies in Cooke’s story started to get bigger and bigger. Even after she won the Pulitzer Prize for it, critics sounded the alarm that something didn’t sound right. The Washington Post initially stood by her story. However, after they could find no evidence that Jimmy or his mother existed at all, they sat down to interrogate her. After hours of interrogation, she cracked.

Cooke admitted that she’d made up the entire story. She cited the high-pressure culture at the Post as the reason for making up such a fabulous and awful tale. She noted that she had heard rumors about a supposed child addicted to heroin for several years but had never been able to find him or confirm the story. Dead set on getting a story she knew her editors wanted, she simply made it up.

With the admission, Cooke quickly resigned from the Post. Not only that but her Pulitzer Prize was also pulled back and taken away. She left journalism altogether and eventually even left the United States, living in Paris for nearly a decade before divorcing her husband and moving back home.

Now, she lives a quiet and private life outside the public eye and has never revealed where she is or what she’s doing. She no longer writes, either—but the Post must still contend with her wildly fabricated story and the disturbing motives behind it.[3]

7 Jack Kelley

Jack Kelley was a longtime foreign correspondent for USA Today. During his career throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he went all over the world to cover politics, war, and other important topics. His work for the paper landed him in Cuba, Israel, Serbia, and many more places all over the globe. But it all came crashing down spectacularly in 2004.

It was then that the newspaper found that he had a long history of fabricating key parts of many of his stories. He even went so far as to write up scripts for his associates and acquaintances. Then, they would pretend to be “sources” for which Kelley could get “quotes” on the record to use while covering stories of great international importance.

The whole thing came to a screeching halt in early 2004 when a lawyer in Belgrade, Serbia, disputed Kelley’s account of using her as a source for a 1999 front-page article he’d written about the Yugoslav Army and the woman’s supposed “order” to “cleanse” a village in Kosovo. USA Today took notice of the lawyer’s claim that her part of the story had been entirely faked.

They started investigating Kelley’s whereabouts more closely from there. They sent their own investigators out to places where he’d been known to work to see if what he was reporting on was really true or not. What they found was shocking: In at least eight major front-page and feature-length stories, Kelley had either misquoted people, made up quotes or sources, or outright fabricated things that were published by the paper.

At the end of January 2004, Kelley resigned from the newspaper—but he denied the charges that he’d made up quotes or sources all the same. Regardless, USA Today’s publisher issued a public apology about the dust-up, and other top editors for the paper were forced to resign in the wake of the controversy, too.[4]

6 Sabrina Rubin Erdely

Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote one of the most infamous feature stories of the last decade when she published “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone in 2014. The story was about an alleged gang rape that took place in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. And at first, the story blew up and went mega-viral.

It caused people to come up with all sorts of assumptions about the frat in which the alleged atrocity took place and the men supposedly involved. But then, upon closer inspection, critics of the story started to poke holes in it. Small ones, at first, and then larger and larger ones regarding facts about the so-called victim involved, the sources Erdely used for her story, and the alleged assailants.

Other journalists couldn’t confirm Erdely’s sources or find the same level of access to the so-called victim in her piece. Eventually, the heat got so hot that Rolling Stone asked the Columbia University School of Journalism to review the article independently. Their conclusion was damning. They slammed Erdely and Rolling Stone for failing to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice.”

Other critics called Erderly out for having a conclusion in mind before writing the piece and then cherry-picking or stretching facts to make her conclusion viable in order to write a shocker. Rolling Stone eventually retracted the piece—and then published three different apologies for having run it at all in the first place.

That wasn’t the end of the story for Erdely, though. The University of Virginia administrator, who was at the center of the piece and depicted as hapless at best and uncaring at worst, sued Erdely and Rolling Stone for defamation. In November 2016, a federally impaneled jury found the disgraced journalist to be liable for defamation with actual malice.

Erderly was also ordered to personally pay that UVA administrator $2 million in damages for the falsehoods and defamatory statements made in “A Rape on Campus.” Still today, the article remains one of the most shocking recent cases of journalistic malpractice out there.[5]

5 Brian Williams

Brian Williams was on the top of the journalism heap as the national anchor for NBC Nightly News beginning in 1993. His stern, deep voice, and his unflappable demeanor made him a natural to helm the anchor desk. And for years, he did so without controversy or concern. But then, issues began to pop up in February 2015 after he was accused of embellishing stories of what he’d done and seen while covering the Iraq War.

Specifically, the longtime anchor was accused of embellishing his involvement in a helicopter raid while in Iraq, with his fiercest critics claiming he’d straight-up faked the story. Williams didn’t concede to that, but he did admit that he’d greatly embellished what he had supposedly witnessed on the ground in Iraq and how involved he had allegedly been in covering the war effort.

NBC was humiliated by Williams’s admission, and they ended up suspending him for six months beginning in February 2015. During the suspension, a deeper investigation by the network found that he’d embellished at least 11 stories and reports beyond what had actually, truly happened. NBC eventually removed him altogether from their Nightly News platform and permanently reassigned him to be the breaking news anchor on their sister station, MSNBC.

From there, beginning in 2016, he went on to host the political news show The 11th Hour. For the next five years, he hosted that show before revealing in 2021 that he would leave MSNBC at the end of his contract. He did so and retired somewhat gracefully—but the details of his embellishments remain both embarrassing and unfortunate.[6]

4 Michael Finkel

Michael Finkel was a well-known journalist who had written for the New York Times before he was fired for fabricating a story in 2002. That year, he was discovered to have used multiple interviews with multiple people and molded them together to create one person who didn’t actually exist for a story on child slavery within Africa.

The composite protagonist was supposedly named Youssouf Malé, and the story he wrote dealt with the so-called Arab slave trade around the continent of Africa. There was just one major problem: Malé didn’t exist. Not in the way Finkel described him, at least.

At issue was the fact that Finkel’s reporting on the alleged slave trade in Africa didn’t actually uncover any slave trading. Instead, it found that children and teenagers were indeed working in absolutely deplorable conditions. But they weren’t technically slaves, and they were paid—even if with pathetically paltry wages and subhuman living conditions.

Regardless, Finkel had pitched a story about the slave trade, so he needed a story about the slave trade. He concocted Malé, claimed he had sold himself into slavery on a cocoa plantation in the West African nation of the Ivory Coast, and sent off the story to the Times. The NYT published the story and even included photographs of the boy who was described to them as Malé. But after publication, an official working for the non-profit organization Save the Children reached out to the NYT with some bad news. The boy in the picture was not named Youssouf Malé.

The Times questioned Finkel and looked into his sourcing. He admitted that he had made the Malé in his story up out of thin air. He took the life details of several boys, compiled them together, and then used the name of one boy he had previously interviewed to create this phony character at the center of his story. Immediately, the NYT fired him.[7]

3 Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith was a columnist for the Boston Globe who was infamously fired in 1998 for making up sources and completely fabricating stories. Smith was a renowned columnist at the paper and had even been a Pulitzer Prize finalist during her time with the outfit. However, early in 1998, she was found to have fabricated quotations and even outright made up supposed story subjects in several of her columns.

In one very infamous case, the paper had to, unfortunately, announce that Smith had made up the entire existence of a woman dying of cancer for a heartfelt and touching story! The woman didn’t exist at all, and it only came to light months after the paper published the story and then stood by it. The Globe asked Smith to resign immediately upon learning that she’d faked her way through a series of columns, and she did.

At the time of her resignation, the Globe’s editor, Matthew V. Storin. called it “a tragedy” for the paper and its determination to gain readers’ trust. “I feel that we have handled it in the only way we could,” he said of her resignation, “and that itself speaks well for the institution.”

The newspaper allowed Smith to write one final column upon resigning, and she did so with the topic, of course, being her fake stories. ”From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist,” she wrote in her going-away letter. “[I apologize] to the grocery clerks and bartenders and single mothers, to the politicians, P.R. flacks, spokespersons and secretaries, to my dear husband and family and friends, I am sorry for betraying your trust.”[8]

2 Benny Johnson

In 2014, BuzzFeed fired their Viral Politics Editor, Benny Johnson, after they uncovered more than 40 instances in which he plagiarized large amounts of copy from various sources. When Johnson was called out first for plagiarizing, BuzzFeed promised to look into the matter. And when they did, they were horrified at what they found.

They discovered more than 40 instances in which Johnson lifted large amounts of news copy from sources, including other political websites and blogs, Wikipedia, US News & World Report, and even things like Yahoo! Answers. That Johnson not only lifted the material word-for-word but also did so without quoting the sources or even giving them credit or attribution is, obviously, a fundamental no-no.

And that he did so from sites like Wikipedia and Yahoo! Answers was equally concerning, as it is difficult to check the veracity of all claims made on those user-generated sites and pages. After finding all the gross violations of plagiarism, BuzzFeed fired Johnson and tried to move on to regain readers’ trust.

In an internal staff memo at the time, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said Johnson’s plagiarism was “not a minor slip.” He added, “We should have caught what are now obvious differences in tone and style, and caught this very early on. We will be more vigilant in the future. We will also change our onboarding procedures to make sure that the high standards of training that come with our fellowship program extend to everyone who arrives at BuzzFeed—and particularly to those without a background in traditional journalism.”[9]

1 Ruth Shalit Barrett

In 2020, the Atlantic inked a deal with Ruth Shalit Barrett to write a feature piece on rich parents in New England who were obsessive about getting their kids into Ivy League schools to the point of pushing their children to play very, very niche sports at a very aggressive rate from a young age. The piece was interesting, and it confirmed what many people felt about striving parents trying to push their kids into the elite club. But there was just one problem with it: it was phony.

After Barrett’s piece ran in the Atlantic, readers and other journalists started pointing out that she had been previously fired by the New Republic back in the 1990s after several major accusations of plagiarism arose in her work. She wrote only under the name Ruth Shalit then and must have thought she could fly under the radar with her new identity nearly thirty years later.

Whatever the case with her maiden and married names, the connection was still made, and the Atlantic was called out for employing her. Then, they decided it would be best to find out if the quotes she got from supposed wealthy parents in those Connecticut suburbs were even real at all. They weren’t!

The Atlantic took the extraordinary step of trying to track down Shalit Barrett’s sources for the piece, and they came away with some stunning findings. Sources had been made up, some sources had been quoted as saying things they didn’t say, and they even found in at least one instance that Barrett quietly contacted a source and asked them to help her cause when the Atlantic came asking questions!

“We now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department,” the Atlantic wrote in an editor’s note on her piece after it first ran. “We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.”

And retract it, they did. They took the nearly unprecedented step of completely wiping Barrett’s writing from their website in shame and regret.[10]

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