NPR unpublishes intern’s execution story after discovering parts were plagiarized

NPR
NPR has deleted a story from its website, an intern’s first-person account of witnessing a public execution in Kabul, after learning that parts of it were plagiarized from someone else’s story published in 2001. An editor’s note now holds the place of the story on NPR.org, though it can still be found online. (Here’s a screenshot in case it’s deleted.)

Late Monday night, this message was sent on behalf of Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s senior VP for news:

Earlier today, we published and distributed a story by Ahmad Shafi recounting his experience witnessing a public execution in Kabul in 1998. Since the story was published, it has come to our attention that portions of the piece were copied from a story by Jason Burke, published by the London Review of Books in March 2001. We have “unpublished” the piece by Ahmad Shafi and ask that all stations remove the story from their websites, as well.

Shafi is an NPR intern. He came to DC after working for us in our Kabul bureau as a producer and fixer. We deeply regret this incident. …

Jason Burke is a British journalist; Shafi says in his account that he was working for a female British journalist when he saw the execution. Burke said he sat high in the stands of the football stadium where the execution occurred, while Shafi says he saw the execution from the field.

Shafi writes that a recent public execution reminded him of the one in 1998. Portions of his account of the execution are word-for-word copies of Jason Burke’s account; other parts are slightly rewritten. According to NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher, Shafi was at the execution:

What happened is fairly simple: an intern made a mistake. English is not Shafi’s first language; it’s one of five he speaks. In writing about this execution he witnessed in 1998, he went looking for a better way to describe what he remembered seeing. When asked about the similar passages by our editors, he was completely upfront and honest, and deeply contrite.


Though he’s an intern, Shafi worked in NPR’s Kabul bureau for over a year as a producer, fixer and translator. His byline is on 15 to 20 stories on NPR.org. Christopher said:

He came to our attention for the summer internship, and we’ve been delighted by his work. We’re bringing other local staff from our international bureaus to D.C. this year, to learn production skills, meet with our editors, and grain experience and training. Shafi is here for the purposes of learning, and if anything, this is a very public learning experience.

Here’s how Burke described the lead-up to the execution:

Soon another man was brought out from the cab of a pick-up truck that had been driven onto the centre circle. He was made to squat in front of one of the goals. He had no blindfold or hood and I could see lank, dark hair and thin features. The soldiers had tied his hands behind his back though he made no attempt to escape. His movements were awkward and sudden. As I watched him fidget, a mullah at the side of the pitch took a microphone and, through the static, announced that the condemned man was a convicted murderer who was to be punished, according to the principle of an eye for an eye, by the brother of his victim. There was a short pause and some discussion among the soldiers.

Then a man took a kalashnikov from one of the Taliban, and aiming it awkwardly, pulled the trigger. Six or eight rounds rattled out in a sharp, loud burst and the muzzle of the weapon jerked upwards and to the right.

Here’s Shafi’s, with similar or identical portions in bold:

A Taliban judge began reading the murder verdict against the condemned man, who was then led out of the pickup truck. He was young, probably in his 20s, and wore a golden skull cap and a shabby tunic.

He was forced to kneel in front of the goal post. He had no blindfold and I could see his pale face, dark hair and thin features. The Taliban soldiers tied his arms behind his back, though he made no attempt to escape.

He glanced at me and the British reporter, standing just a few paces away. The Taliban judge announced that the convicted murderer would be punished according to the principle of an eye-for-an-eye. The brother of the murder victim was handed an AK-47 rifle. There was a short pause and I could hear the murmur in the crowd.

Several shots rang out in loud bursts. The muzzle of the weapon jerked upward and to the right. The condemned man fell to the ground as the bullets hit him. As he was dying, he gasped for air. He turned and looked helplessly toward us. He may have been trying to say something, but all we could hear was a purring sound.

Shafi is still interning at NPR, but he’s not writing for broadcast or the Web while his work is reviewed, Christopher said. She said NPR learned of Burke’s story from an email to its corrections address, “and our editors immediately looked into it.”

He’s the second intern this summer at a major news organization to have written compromised material. Wall Street Journal intern Liane Membis fabricated parts of at least three stories in her three weeks at the paper; she’s no longer at the Journal.

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  • Anonymous

    This is the problem with “advocacy journalism”. The “journalists” are so focused on advocating for the cause that they feel fudging the facts here and there is acceptable.

  • Anonymous

    This is the problem with “advocacy journalism”. The “journalists” are so focused on advocating for the cause that they feel fudging the facts here and there is acceptable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hall/100003322010756 Kevin Hall

    They laid off the editors. Their desks are empty. News execs don’t think they need them, instead relying on “reader-generated content” to fill the space for free, spelling, grammar, sense and truth bedamned.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hall/100003322010756 Kevin Hall

    I concur wholeheartedly.

    It’s disgraceful, with tens of thousands of seasoned, professional journalists laid off, begging for any work but expecting news media only to offer a liveable wage and medical insurance in return for the expertise they earned in education and honed for decades … driven to work for $10/hour freelance, no health care, cleaning up outsourced copy written by 35-cent/hour filipinos.

    NPR should do more reporting on the sins of its own industry. It needs to look no further than its own glass office doors to start.

    Shafi probably has, at least, universal health care and dirt cheap pharma back home in Kabul, more than thousands upon thousands of professional US journalists now have.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hall/100003322010756 Kevin Hall

    I concur wholeheartedly.

    It’s disgraceful, with tens of thousands of seasoned, professional journalists laid off, begging for any work but expecting news media only to offer a liveable wage and medical insurance in return for the expertise they earned in education and honed for decades … driven to work for $10/hour freelance, no health care, cleaning up outsourced copy written by 35-cent/hour filipinos.

    NPR should do more reporting on the sins of its own industry. It needs to look no further than its own glass office doors to start.

    Shafi probably has, at least, universal health care and dirt cheap pharma back home in Kabul, more than thousands upon thousands of professional US journalists now have.

  • Dierdre Popov

    Isn’t this the question that Myers should badger Margaret Low Smith with until she gives us a satisfactory answer? Get to work, Steve. No one gets a free pass on something this critical.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t understand why these so-called “creditable national journalistic institutions” like the WSJ and NPR, continue to allow an unproven and likely-unvetted “intern” to produce cover story copy about sensational events of international interest?

    The only answer could be just another instance of media-staff mismanagement! 

    I guess the brain trusts that operate these once-creditable news outlets never believed the ole saw:  

               “You get what you pay for, or a little bit less.”

  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    The best defense should be editors at pre-publication. The only people who pay attention to stories being fixed/pulled are news junkies and the people actually in the story. Everyone else, when they even read the whole story in the first place, aren’t likely to re-visit a newsstory page ever again, or follow whatever feed might list the correction.

  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Mu Lin

    So this raises an interesting point for discussion – in the digital era, what is the best defense against errors and mistakes? People who are opposed to a “digital first” approach say, among other arguments, that editors are needed for fact-checking. In the case of the two interns being caught for “compromised” materials, it was the audience who quickly pointed it out and the publishers quickly responded.