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Cape Cod Times says reporter fabricated sources in dozens of stories

Cape Cod Times / Merrily Cassidy

Karen Jeffrey fabricated people in some of her stories, the Cape Cod Times says.

Updated at 6:42 p.m. ET: A Massachusetts daily newspaper apologized to its readers after an internal investigation concluded that a veteran reporter wrote dozens of stories that included people who don’t exist.

The Cape Cod Times said Karen Jeffrey, 59, a writer for the Times since 1981, “admitted to fabricating people in some of these articles and giving some others false names.”

In a column published Tuesday titled “An apology to our readers,” Publisher Peter Meyer and Editor Paul Pronovost wrote:

Papers have personalities, and no two are exactly alike, but at the end of the day, facts are facts. And a good newspaper holds nothing more sacred than its role to tell the truth. Always. As fully and as fairly as possible.

This is our guiding principle, so it is with heavy heart that we tell you the Cape Cod Times has broken that trust.

The column said Times editors reviewed Jeffrey’s previous work after questions were raised about a source in a story she wrote last month about a Veterans Day celebration. Editors were unable to find 69 people in 34 of her stories since 1998, when the newspaper began archiving stories electronically.

Jeffrey "no longer works for the Cape Cod Times,” the newspaper said.

Jeffrey could not be reached for comment. A telephone message left Wednesday for a listing under her name was not immediately returned.

Meyer and Pronovost added:

We were able to verify sourcing in many stories written by Jeffrey, mostly police and court news, political stories, and recently a series on returning war veterans. The stories with suspect sourcing were typically lighter fare – a story on young voters, a story on getting ready for a hurricane, a story on the Red Sox home opener – where some or all of the people quoted cannot be located.

In a 2011 story about a Fourth of July parade in Cotuit, for example, Jeffrey wrote about a man named Johnson Coggins, described as 88 years old, “the patriarch of the family” and a longtime Cotuit summer resident. Editors were unable to find that name via searches of public records and the local assessor’s database, Meyer and Pronovost said. They also couldn’t locate five other people featured in the story.

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The newspaper said an investigation of Jeffrey's work began Nov. 12 when a Veterans Day assignment raised questions among editors. According to the newspaper's account of the investigation, Jeffrey's story began this way:

“CHATHAM – Ronald Chipman and his family were strolling along Chatham's Main Street when they noticed traffic slowed. A crowd of people gathered at the small rotary ahead.

“Flags, uniforms, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The Chipmans were momentarily puzzled.

“'I looked at my wife. She looked back at me. We had the same guilty thought – Veterans Day – and we thought nothing about it except as a long weekend on the Cape until we saw that,' said Chipman, 46, a Boston resident. 'You live in the city and sometimes you forget about things like this – about things still mattering to people,' he said.”

The editors were unable to find the Chipman family. When asked if she could help locate the family, Jeffrey said she could not because she threw away her notes.

An expanded review of Jeffrey’s previous work turned up “dozens of additional stories with suspect sources,” the newspaper said.

Editors also spot-checked other reporters’ work but turned up no questionable sourcing. “We are confident this situation was isolated to Jeffrey,” Meyer and Pronovost wrote.

The Cape Cod Times, a daily newspaper based in Hyannis, Mass., that claims daily circulation of 43,000, serves Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass. It is owned by the Dow Jones Local Media Group, a subsidiary of News Corporation.

The newspaper said editors will now spot-check reporters’ articles more frequently, choosing stories at random and calling sources to verify they exist. Jeffrey's questionable stories or passages of stories will also be removed from capecodonline.com and will be replaced with a note that explains why they were removed.

In a follow-up email, Pronovost told NBC News the newspaper will also reactivate a team to review newsroom policies and practices, conduct training for staff and expand the list of people with access to verification tools.

"This incident heightens our awareness of how badly our credibility can be damaged by anything less than the highest ethical standards by 100 percent of the people. The people who work here are strongly committed to rebuilding the trust we broke – every person I’ve spoken with (and that’s almost everybody in our newsroom) has pledged to do their part to earn our readers’ confidence. This was a painful lesson, but a lesson nonetheless," Pronovost said.

Craig Silverman, founder of Regret the Error, a blog on Poynter.org that reports on media errors and corrections, said Jeffrey is the third "mass fabricator" to be exposed this year:

The first was New Canaan news reporter Paresh Jha, who fabricated sources and quotes in at least 25 stories, and the second is a former staff photographer for Sun-Times Media, who made up names and quotes for photo essays.

Silverman wrote:

Jeffrey’s offenses stand out for their frequency, and for the length of time she got away with it. Fabrication is always scandalous, but it’s all the more outrageous when someone can get away with it for so long. I imagine Jeffrey’s former colleagues are struck by that as well.

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