NEWS- Small tales: Reporter fired for plagiarism, fabrication

Andrew Koch, 39, saw his name and this picture of himself in the Staunton News Leader next to an article about a UVA fourth year who shares his name. At first, Koch thought it was a case of mistaken identity, but, as it turns out, no such fourth year exists.

The UVA student whom Staunton News Leader reporter Blair Parker profiled in her October 19 story "Proud Cav makes every game" seemed to be a fairly typical student: a fourth-year architecture major from Staunton who had attended every football game despite having mixed feelings about wearing a "sea of orange" t-shirt. He even once went on a spring-break vacation to Cancun. The only problem? The picture that ran alongside the article was of a different Andrew Koch. But that's just the tip of the problem.

The Andrew Koch in the photograph is a 39-year-old instructor at James Madison University's Institute of Certified Professional Managers. He has two masters degrees; he went to North Carolina State and often roots against the Cavaliers. He doesn't own an orange t-shirt; he's never been to Cancun; and he's never spoken with Parker or anyone else from the News Leader. 

"It's been a long time since I've been mistaken for a college senior," he says.

As soon as JMU's Koch saw the story, he had an idea of how his picture got in the paper.

"I knew that was the picture of me from the website where I work," he says. "It's the only one where I have sunglasses on top of my head. But if the reporter had read the bio next to the picture, she would have seen that I'm not a UVA senior."

So, believing Parker had simply mistaken him for somebody else, he posted a comment on the story on the News Leader's website. Once naming himself as the Andrew Koch in the picture, and commending the younger Koch for his accomplishments, the Harrisonburg resident had a word of advice for the Staunton daily.

"You folks at the News Leader really should invest in a new device called a camera," he wrote. "One of them would have enabled you to actually take Mr. Koch's picture when you interviewed him, and they are readily available."

Little did Koch know at the time, but Parker was already in trouble. Elsewhere in the October 19 edition was a correction saying that she had plagiarized much of a previous day's article about deer hunting and trout fishing. With Koch's post, Parker's already frayed credibility began to unravel in earnest.

The only Andrew Koch the Hook could find at UVA is the assistant director of the marching band, and he says he doesn't remember talking with anyone from the News Leader. Like the Harrisonburg Andrew Koch, he says it would be difficult to mistake him for a fourth year. 

"I'm 30," he says. "I didn't even go to UVA. I'm a [University of South Carolina] Gamecock."

By the end of Friday, October 19, Parker's editors had figured out what she had known all along: UVA student Andrew Koch does not exist, and Parker's story was pure fiction.

By Tuesday, October 23, the News Leader officially terminated Parker's employment after a little more than a year at the paper, and two days later News Leader editor David Fritz published an official apology to readers acknowledging that Parker had plagiarized from sources on at least two other occasions and fabricated two community profiles like the Koch piece. 

The next day, the Associated Press revealed the scandal, and that account has since been republished in such far-flung publications as the Boston Globe and the Toronto Canadian Press.

Outlandish stories were the M.O. of notorious New Republic fabricator Stephen Glass, who became the subject of the 2003 film Shattered Glass after stories about teen computer hackers and randy Republicans were found to be bogus. Yet, unlike Glass, Parker's fantasy profiles were of more mundane subjects.

In the October 10 article, "The joy of giving one's time," she wrote of Christine Miller, a supposed volunteer at the Augusta Medical Center (which has 1,900 paid employees and over 875 volunteers), who had served for two years as a "patient escort and patient liaison." She offered such quotes as, "I know if I was sick for a long time, I would be grateful for someone to help me." 

In Parker's August 7 article, "Miller loves watching tennis," Parker created Jessica Miller, a rising junior at Harrisonburg High School (student population: 1,344) who went to see a real News Leader-sponsored tennis tournament despite the recent death of her "Grandpapa Henry." 

"We all miss him very much, but he would have wanted us all to come and have a great time like we always do," were the words Parker put into the mouth of her imaginary young subject.

Parker– or at least a woman in Staunton whose voice is on the voicemail at a phone number listed for Blair Parker– did not return the Hook's call for comment, and Fritz refused to elaborate beyond what he had already written in an open letter to readers of the News Leader. 

Six months before the release of Shattered Glass, America got another dose of fake news when the New York Times revealed that its reporter Jayson Blair had the same bad habit. But, according to Bob Steele, a scholar at the Poynter Institute, it's more difficult than ever for reporters to successfully make stories up as they go along.

"My sense is that there are many more checks and balances now," he says. "Given the Internet, just about anybody can start comparing pieces and information and find out if someone has plagiarized or potentially fabricated information in a way that's inauthentic or inaccurate."

However, Steele emphasizes that cyberspace can be treacherous territory in terms of finding the truth.

"Given the nature and the amount of information on the Internet, it's important not to jump to conclusions," he says.

While the error of Parker's ways– which also include plagiarizing parts of at least three stories– will almost certainly have a devastating effect on her career, the real Andrew Koch from Harrisonburg says the adverse effects on his life have been minimal.

"My friends and I have had a good laugh over it," he says. "Although my wife was mad I hadn't taken her to Cancun."