Have newsrooms relaxed standards, sanctions for fabrication and plagiarism?

When the Chicago Sun-Times fired Paige Wiser for fabricating earlier this month, readers shared mixed reactions about whether the punishment was too harsh.

Wiser, who had been at the paper for 17 years, was let go after writing a “Glee Live!” concert review that included details about a song that was never performed and a song that she didn’t stay at the concert long enough to hear. After her column ran, Wiser admitted that she left the concert early because one of her kids, who was at the concert with her, started to get sick.

“Suspension, yes. Firing, no,” one reader commented in a Romenesko post about the incident. “This is a punishment wildly disproportionate to the crime.”

Another commented: “To keep someone on staff who admits making up facts for a story — no matter how superficial the story is — would make me wonder if accuracy was even a consideration. In my opinion, the paper had no choice but to fire her.”

In an informal and unscientific poll we conducted, 37 percent of readers said the firing was justified, while 41 percent said the Sun-Times overreacted and that a suspension would have been more appropriate for a longtime staffer.

The responses and reader comments renew attention to how news organizations handle plagiarism and fabrication cases  — and whether the standards have changed in recent years.

To get a better sense of this, I compiled a list of plagiarism and fabrication cases that shows the range of ways news organizations have responded when journalists such as Sari Horwitz, Maureen Dowd and Jayson Blair were caught plagiarizing. The responses range from firing reporters, to suspending them, to simply publishing a correction or note to readers.

When compiling the list, I found that many of the stories written about plagiarism and fabrication mention factors that news organizations may have considered when deciding how to respond. The factors include: the news organization’s policy on fabrication/plagiarism, the severity of the offense, the reporter’s tenure and track record at the organization, and any personal difficulties the reporter may have been dealing with at the time.

A Washington Post piece about Horwitz, for instance, said she had been helping her mother through difficult health issues around the time that she plagiarized. And a Romenesko post about Wiser quoted one of her colleagues as saying she was “under intense pressure, citing chronic headaches, a car accident in which she’d broken a finger, and an experience with vertigo while covering Oprah Winfrey’s May 17 Farewell Spectacular.” There were also several stories about Jayson Blair’s struggle with bipolar disorder.

Some editors seem “more willing to overlook minor plagiarism”

Because we almost never know the full story behind personnel issues, we don’t have enough data to say there are definite trends in sanctions. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that some newsrooms have relaxed their standards when it comes to plagiarism and fabrication.

Poynter’s Kelly McBride, who regularly gets phone calls from editors seeking advice on how to handle plagiarism/fabrication cases, said she found that more newsrooms started firing staffers for plagiarism following the Blair scandal. That seems to have changed once the economic crisis hit newsrooms.

“Some editors these days seem more willing to overlook minor plagiarism, because it almost always involves writers trying to work fast, either because they have additional duties or because they are trying to publish to ride a wave of interest,” said McBride, who has taken about a dozen related calls from editors throughout the past year.

“When I tell them that what they are looking at is indeed a case of plagiarism, they seem reticent to discipline. My sense is they feel like they are partially culpable for creating an environment where mistakes and plagiarism are more likely to happen.”

She went on tell me that if a news organization is looking for excuses to lay someone off and the person plagiarizes or fabricates, that might be the tipping point. But, she said, if editors have kept a person around during layoffs and cutbacks, they might feel a sense of remorse or loss at the idea of firing someone over a “minor case.”

No doubt, there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to defining a “minor” case and a “major” one.

McBride said that “Fabrication is almost always more egregious than plagiarism because it involves creating fiction in a place where only fact is permitted. Minor plagiarism involves lifting a sentence or a paragraph, which, in the age of copy and paste, is careless and reckless, but easy to do.”

Poynter’s Jill Geisler pointed out that when the offense is minor, it’s more likely that other factors influence the decision to sanction. But, she said via email, “if it is determined that the breach is egregious, that the company didn’t contribute to it, and that the employee made the choice to do it — then a firing is justified. It shouldn’t matter whether the employee is junior or senior, or whether the person is a star player or barely known.”

Steps newsroom leaders can take to make more informed decisions

Geisler suggested that newsroom leaders should consider the following steps when dealing with plagiarism or fabrication:

  • “In the face of a misdeed, focus on the problem first (the action) and its seriousness. Document it carefully. Don’t let public pressure or embarrassment deny someone due process.
  • “Look inward: Identify any mitigating factors that could have contributed to the misdeed. Did the organization play a role in any way — through unclear policies or inconsistent responses in identical cases? Did the organization’s poor planning, training, scheduling or communication play any role?
  • “After vetting the problem, address the person. Did he or she do this knowingly? Did the person ask for advice from a supervisor before taking this action, or act independently? Did this person have other alternatives?”

McBride added that it always helps to talk with the reporter about how he or she could have handled the situation differently. In the Sun-Times case, for instance, Wiser could have included a line in her column about having to leave early.

Many factors affect plagiarism and fabrication cases, and not everyone is going to agree on the final outcome. But taking time to carefully vet the problem can lead to a more informed decision and help prevent the same problem from happening again.

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  • Anonymous

    The issue is not so much that standards have been changed (they haven’t) or that sanctions have been reduced (arguably they have). As newsroom staffing has been slashed, internal controls that would catch factual inconsistencies and sniff out problems are gone.

    Previously, a good percentage of such incidents could be handled quietly in-house because they were were caught before publication. As editors and fact checkers have been pared from payrolls, more of these incidents are seeing publication. Private issues become public embarrassment.

  • Anonymous

    I hope this doesn’t sound too old school, but every one of these folks, with the possible–and I emphasize possible–exception of Woody Paige should have been fired. Not allowed to resign, but f-i-r-e-d. In the case of Patricia Smith, she should never have made it to Boston–if I was emperor, her last story in journalism would have been the false Elton John concert review in 1986. And if I had been emperor in Boston, I would’ve fired her editors, as well. My lord: They pretty much KNEW what was going on and kept letting it go on. What does it take?

    In the case of Ms. Wiser, the Sun-Times did the right thing, and to anyone who says that it’s OK to take your kids to a show you are reviewing, my lord. I have reviewed a few shows in my time and it is not fun. It is not entertainment. It is not something you take your kids to because you think that they might enjoy it. You are there to work, and it is not, or should not be, take your son/daughter to work night. You cannot both watch after your kids and fulfill your duty to readers in keeping track of the goings-on. If I had been Wiser’s editor and discovered that she had taken her kids to a show that she was being paid to review, I would’ve fired her for that alone, or at least given her a long, long suspension.I don’t care how many Pulitzers these liars and thieves have won. Stealing is stealing, lying is lying, it has no place in this business and this is, or should be, one of those few bright-line things in this world. When it happens, it diminishes everyone’s credibility, and that enablers find reasons to keep these liars and thieves employed diminishes the media’s credibility even more. If you plagiarize or make something up, you should be gone, period.Bruce Rushton 

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelCromer Michael Cromer

    Okay, after another reading, I’ll concede that Kelly McBride’s quote meets my lesser test of “enough to raise the question.” And I will commend you for your efforts at compiling more data, though as you say there isn’t enough to conclude there is a definite trend. So maybe my problem is more with the headline than with the article.

    Journalism standards and ethics is a red-hot concern these days, among readers as well as editors. I’m willing to bet that this article is getting an extraordinary number of page-views.

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your comment. I think we do answer the question that we posed in the headline. In the story, we quote Kelly McBride as saying that some newsrooms have relaxed their standards. This is anecdotal evidence, but it still helps answer the question. We also wanted to pose a question in the headline to motivate others to share their own thoughts and opinions about the issue.

    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelCromer Michael Cromer

    When a story is headlined, “Have newsrooms relaxed standards…?”, it implies that there is evidence that they have done so, or, at least, enough reason to ask the question. This story does not back up its headline with evidence, apart from some quotes that seem to be little more than water cooler chatter.

  • Anonymous

    The Chicago Sun-Times incident reminds me of Patricia Smith writing about an Elton John concert in 1986 that she didn’t attend. If a reporter can’t deliver a story–for whatever reason–they need to tell their editor and then figure out what to do about it. She had a good reason for leaving the concert early, but that doesn’t give any journalist the right to make up a part of their story. It’s unfortunate, but she was justifiably fired.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for writing about this issue. I was not aware of the incdient at the Sun-Times, but it is an interesting story. I just graduated with my Masters degree in Journalism and Mass Commm and i have great respect for the profession of journalism.

    I do think that the firing was justified, seeing as how an act of carelessness can really diminsh the reputation of a news organization. It also raised a question of, if she would make up stuff about “Glee Live” what else would she be willing to fabricate to get home early to her kids?

    Maybe she thought this was a fluffy news story and one that she could phone in, but I have been trained to respect the readership that supports you and to take all the stories you write seriously. Journalism has high standards for rigour and correlation of facts. Let’s keep it that way.

    http://michaelmaczesty.blogspot.com