After the Wall Street Journal fired Liane Membis ’12 in July for fabricating sources, the News opened an investigation into her work as a staff reporter for the paper between 2009 and 2010. After fact-checking her articles and contacting as many of the sources with whom she talked as possible, we have found no evidence of any fabrication. We have, however, found three instances in which Membis may have altered direct quotations from her sources. Although we have only been able to confirm one such instance, we have added editor’s notes to all articles that have been called into question, and cut the direct quotes in question from those articles. Finally, we have identified and corrected a number of small factual errors in Membis’ work. Membis did not respond to any of the News’ requests for comment or assistance throughout the investigation.
Of the 41 total articles Membis wrote for the News, our investigation focused on the 35 that were reported pieces and not reviews or columns for our arts and living supplement. We first confirmed that every source she cited was real, and then contacted those sources to ask if they remembered any inconsistencies in their interviews with Membis or had noted any problems with the articles she wrote. Finally, we fact-checked her work.
On three occasions, people Membis had quoted in her articles said their quotes did not sound right.
First, physics professor Jack Harris, who was quoted in the Oct. 14, 2009 article “A new look at electrons,” said one quote attributed to him was consistent with what he would have said, but that the specific phrasing sounded like it was written by an undergraduate. Membis quoted him as saying: “This research is important because it helps to better our understanding of how electrons work and how it could affect our society.”
Second, child psychiatry professor Linda Mayes, who was quoted in the Sept. 30, 2009 article “Can video games help with healthy choices?” said that one quote attributed to her did not sound right because she did not usually use the word “teens” or phrases like “game mechanics,” both of which she had been quoted as using. Furthermore, she did not recall the game she was talking about ever having had the name she purportedly used for it.
Mayes added, however, that she could not be sure about the content of the interview due to the lapse of time in between the article’s publication and the News’ investigation. Because there remains no record of either her or Harris’ interviews with Membis, it was impossible to confirm whether the quotes were authentic or had been modified.
In a third instance, however, Membis had conducted an interview with Volkan Doda ’11 for her Oct. 8, 2009 article “Architecture major restructured” by email. A review of this email correspondence, which Doda provided to the News, showed that Membis embellished Doda’s quotes to make them more cohesive. She quoted him as follows:
“The expectations in terms of presentation, work quality and conceptual background in the architecture major, like in most other arts courses at Yale, are usually very high, which forces you to spend more and more time on projects,” Doda said. “And the other thing that gets junior architecture majors into a hefty shake is the lack of a solid historical background, both in theory and in practice.”
The first sentence she quotes matches exactly the text of Doda’s email. But the second sentence, which is drawn from a separate part of the email, is partly manufactured. Doda in fact wrote:
“I think more prerequisites are not necessarily a bad move, because one of the reasons that turns junior architecture into a hefty shake for most people is the lack of a solid background (both in theory and in practice).”
Although basic copy-editing of an email interview is acceptable, adding words to a direct quotation is not. The article in question has since been corrected online, with an editor’s note explaining the changes.
Elsewhere in the article, Membis paraphrased Doda incorrectly, writing, “[Doda] said he often spends 20 hours a week on projects for his architecture studio class.” In fact, Doda did not refer specifically to any particular class and wrote in his email, “You sometimes end up spending 20 hours on a project that will be reviewed for 10 minutes at most, and you have one of these projects every week.”
This was the most egregious of a number of errors the News found in articles by Membis, which have since been corrected. In the Oct. 13, 2009 article “Post-election paths diverge,” the type of school at which Minh Tran ’09 taught was misidentified as a magnet school instead of a public charter school. The architecture article mentioned above did not follow News requirements and make clear that Membis’ interview with Doda was conducted by email. In the Sept. 30, 2009 article “Can video games help with healthy choices?” the last name of professor of medicine Lynn Fiellin was repeatedly misspelled. The Feb. 23, 2010 article “Zombies attack, fall in love” repeatedly misidentified the title of the film that was the subject of the article.
These errors were similar to the problems in Membis’ Jan. 28, 2009 article “Supervisors seek to develop, publicize secret garden.” The text of that article required three major corrections, which the News made soon after the story’s publication. One of those corrections concerned an inaccurate quote.
Through fact-checking and conversations with sources, the News was able to confirm the veracity of all the rest of Membis’ reported stories not mentioned thus far.
One of Membis’ other stories for the News, the Aug. 28, 2009 column in our arts and living section “Pour some sugar daddy on me,” raised questions about its accuracy. Membis has offered the News different stories about the story’s authenticity. In an Aug. 31, 2009 email, she said, “My story is not exaggerated, so no correction is needed.” But in a March 2, 2011 email, she wrote, “The piece … was originally written under the pretense of it being a fictional piece by the Scene staff; it was edited without my presence and published in the fall of 2009, with exaggerations which were not true.” Given those conflicting accounts, we have added an editor’s note to the article.
Accuracy and journalistic integrity are among the News’ chief priorities. To that end, we follow a fact-checking procedure for all articles. In the wake of our findings regarding Membis’ reporting, we have added further emphasis on sourcing, fact-checking, and journalistic ethics to our training for new journalists.
-Max de La Bruyère, Editor-in-Chief