Newsroom responses to Zakaria plagiarism reveal lack of consistency, transparency
The Fareed Zakaria plagiarism scandal has an interesting unintended consequence: it highlights how media outlets respond differently to plagiarism and fabrication cases.
My Poynter colleague Mallary Tenore examined this last year by listing recent incidents of plagiarism and fabrication and showing that the response and punishment from outlets varied.
Not every incident is the same, so it's not realistic to expect the consequences to be the same for every writer.
But after tracking plagiarism and fabrication cases for more than seven years (see some data here) I've found many news organizations don't immediately investigate a writer's previous work, and it's often a struggle to get anything other than a prepared statement from them about the incident. When they do investigate previous work, news organizations usually fail to follow up publicly about what they found.
The problem with not looking at previous work is there's no way to know if this is a pattern of behavior.
My standard criticism of the lack of disclosure from news organizations is that we in the press demand answers and information when there's an ethical transgression by a public figure or official. But when it happens in our own house, we often fail to meet the same standard.
As we learned last week, Zakaria plagiarized from a recent New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Time and CNN.com both published pieces that included the stolen words. Zakaria also writes a column for The Washington Post.. Even though the offending work did not appear in the Post, the paper nonetheless declared what it planned to do about the incident.
All three have issued statements. All three said Zakaria's plagiarism was under "review." The word appears to suggest a look into his previous work. But it's not clear, and it should be. Readers and viewers should know what these outlets are doing to ensure the integrity of the work. (I emailed all three outlets this morning to seek clarification.)
To complicate matters, Time, CNN and The Washington Post use the word "review" -- a general term to begin with -- in different ways.
CNN's said it has suspended Zakaria while "this matter is under review.” Does the review include looking into previous columns and blog posts? Or is it just "this matter"?
A statement from Time was clear about why Zakaria's act was unacceptable:
... what he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well.
That's helpful context for readers. As a result of the violation of Time standards, the magazine said, "we are suspending Fareed's column for a month, pending further review."
So far, that's two general expressions of review and two suspensions. One suspension is for a month. The other is unknown. We get some details, but not all. News organizations should be open to answering questions from the media in cases like this, rather than merely issuing statements.
At The Washington Post, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said:
Fareed Zakaria is a valued contributor. We’ve never had any reason to doubt the integrity of his work for us. Given his acknowledgment today, we intend to review his work with him.
That's perhaps the clearest indication of a look into previous work. But I'm left wondering what it means that the Post will review the work "with" Zakaria. Shouldn't this be done independently first, and then include Zakaria if there are items of concern? Maybe that's the plan. I emailed Hiatt to find out more.
It's possible all three outlets are looking into Zakaria's previous work, but it's not clear how or what they're doing, whether the results will be communicated, or when.
What is clear is this incident will set off what I call the Google Game, causing people to grab parts of Zakaria's previous work and plug into a search engine to see if it turns up stolen. If these news organizations don't look into his previous work, you can be sure others will.
Adam Penenberg, an New York University professor and the man who busted Stephen Glass, tweeted earlier today that he wondered if CNN and Time would find other evidence of plagiarism. I replied that we don't exactly know if they're looking, or how they're going about it if they are.
@craigsilverman They'd better. Because outsiders found the initial plagiarism. If outsiders are ones to find more, itd make Time look worse.
— Adam L. Penenberg (@Penenberg) August 13, 2012
Update: Reinforcing my point about the lack of transparency, CNN spokesperson Jennifer Dargan responded by email only to say "we are not detailing the internal process further than what has been already stated."