Journalism’s Summer of Sin marked by plagiarism, fabrication, obfuscation

Fall will mark the end of journalism’s Summer of Sin, when a cavalcade of plagiarism, fabrication and unethical recycling damaged several careers and publications.

In many cases, these incidents — significant transgressions sometimes repeated with shocking frequency — were followed by silence or thin statements from the affected news organizations. (Want a full accounting of the Summer of Sin? See below.)

When the worst happens at a news organization, wagons are circled, stonewalls erected. It’s a corrosive form of hypocrisy when — in a moment of crisis — journalists do the exact things that drive them crazy.

In some cases, newsroom leaders share little or nothing about what happened, or how they’re handling the incident. Sometimes they won’t even name the people involved or acknowledge any related discipline.

Often, they simply refuse to answer questions.

Now, there is admittedly a personal element of frustration here. I’m one of the reporters who inevitably emails and calls when an incident occurs. I confess to being annoyed with having to push and pull for basic information.

Like any journalist, I, of course, hate getting “no comment” from people.

The fact that these same people then turn around and tell their staffs to push past such brushoffs is, well, strange to say the least.

It’s damaging, too.

Need for transparency

Here’s the issue: If we in the press stonewall and hide behind vague public statements when ethical breaches happen within our ranks, then we embolden politicians and other public figures and sources to do the same.

Leaders in a profession dedicated to shining a light on truth and helping enforce accountability need to meet the same standard of transparency they demand of others.

This leadership strengthens our position with sources and fosters trust with the public.

I understand the need to have communications and public relations colleagues draft statements, distribute them to the press and handle inquiries. That’s a part of their job, and they provide useful guidance.

But when a news organization is unwilling to face up to an incident of plagiarism, fabrication or a major mistake and be accountable, then other organizations and institutions in society are emboldened to do the exact same thing when a crisis strikes.

This practice offers critics a reason to avoid accountability and ignore the press, and sends the message that news organizations are adrift without an ethical compass.

A news organization’s handling of a crisis can affect the job it has to do every other day of the year.

After seeing this summer unfold, my concern is that newsroom leaders are starting to see silence and message control as the preferred strategy for handling an ethical transgression.

At the same time, in fairness, I think this strategy is sometimes employed because people don’t know how to deal with such a tense and damaging situation. They want to protect themselves, their jobs, their newsrooms. There’s also the concern that they may get sued for wrongful termination or defamation if an incident is mishandled.

So what can they do?

Three steps

It’s more important than ever that the profession work to create basic guidelines and processes for handling an incident of plagiarism, fabrication, and/or a major error. It’s also essential that this be done on a large scale and subsequently endorsed at the highest levels.

I believe the lack of clear guidance and transparent newsroom policies is a major contributor to the current situation.

As a starting point, Poynter’s Kelly McBride and I recently offered a basic guide for dealing with plagiarism and fabrication.

Building on that, I think a first step is for journalism’s leading professional organizations to have their ethics committees (and/or boards) look at this issue, gather what material and policies they have, and determine what guidance they can offer to newsrooms. This needs to be an initiative that cuts across organizations, mediums and disciplines to serve all journalists.

Ideally, the Society of Professional Journalists, American Copy Editors Society, American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations will then collaborate on a set of unified best practices that can provide guidance to newsrooms large and small, across mediums.

To inform the process, newsroom leaders could provide their existing policies and practices to the group.

The end result would be clear guidelines for plagiarism and fabrication, and a consistent process for investigating and communicating about these incidents internally and externally.

The second step: Work to educate newsrooms and spread the word about the resulting best practices.

Newsroom leaders must be willing to vocally support and endorse the new guidance. This helps send the message that a new standard has emerged, and it comes from the top of the profession.

Newsroom leaders have a major role to play in changing the way newsrooms handle these incidents. A clear, omnibus set of best practices is one step. Publishing them and promoting them is a critical part of the process. This will provide clarity and create a culture of transparency and accountability that stops the slide towards avoidance and obfuscation.

The third step in this plan of attack is for newsrooms to institute random checks for plagiarism. This is a straightforward and affordable initiative: Simply run a selection of published content per week through the plagiarism detection service of your choice. Communicate to staff that this is being done to ensure the newsroom is adhering to the new policy, and to protect against transgressions.

I would add that fabrication can also be the subject of random checks. In this case, an editor would pick a selection of sources from published work and contact them to verify their quotes. Even better if this can be done prior to publication. This process also helps verify the accuracy of quotes.

These measures act as a deterrent to those tempted to cheat, and increase the likelihood of catching someone who is already plagiarizing or fabricating as part of their work.

2012 will go down as one of the worst summers for plagiarism, fabrication and ethical misdeeds in recent journalistic history.

My hope is that it’s also remembered as the summer when inconsistent guidelines and a damaging hypocrisy began to die.

May it be a fast death.

The Summer of Sin Chronology

June

Journatic — Hundreds of stories produced by this journalism outsourcing company contained fake bylines, and in at least one case, plagiarized material and fabricated information. Eventually, a respected Chicago Tribune was brought in to evaluate internal processes and enforce standards.

New Canaan News — This small Hearst paper in Connecticut employed one of the worst serial fabricators in modern journalism. Staff writer Paresh Jha fabricated sources in at least 25 stories before being found out and fired. The paper to date has offered nothing more than a 152-word brief about the offenses. New Canaan editor Ashley Varese repeated over and over again in a very brief, reluctant interview that she could only “stick to the statement” and offer no additional information. Hearst Connecticut Media Group editorial director David McCumber didn’t comment publicly about the incidents, and the paper has never published a full accounting of Jha’s offenses. (He did cooperate with a Connecticut SPJ investigation into work that Jha had received awards for.). McCumber was promoted to Hearst’s Washington Bureau Chief in August.

Jonah Lehrer — New Yorker staff writer, Wired contributor and bestselling author Jonah Lehrer repeatedly recycled passages in blog posts for the New Yorker and Wired, fabricated material in at least one book, and plagiarized material from multiple sources. Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker after it was revealed he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his book, “Imagine.” His publisher began reviewing his other works. A spokesman for Wired later said the publication was keeping Lehrer on contract and that he was working on new magazine material. This was later clarified to say that the publication was looking into his work before deciding if Lehrer could continue to write for the magazine. Slate later published a story by science journalist and journalism professor Charles Seife that detailed what he found when Wired asked him to investigate Lehrer’s work for its website. This was published at roughly the same time as a statement from Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen detailing its decision to sever ties with Lehrer. Slate published Seife’s piece because Wired decided not to publish anything from him about his investigation. Seife told Poynter, “There’s a reflex sometimes to cover up. I’m not accusing Wired.com of this, of course. Sometimes there’s an incredible desire to muck out the stables and sometimes there’s a desire to minimize the damage. And these are contradictions sometimes.” Hansen declined to comment on the decision not to publish anything by Seife.

Wall Street Journal — Liane Membis, an intern with the Wall Street Journal, was dismissed after the paper learned she had fabricated sources and quotes in three articles for the paper. It was also later revealed she had issues with accuracy while at the Yale Daily News. The Huffington Post also later removed a contribution from her due to fabrication.

July

NPR — NPR admitted that an intern’s account of witnessing an execution in Afghanistan included plagiarized material. The intern had worked with news organizations, including NPR, in Afghanistan before being given the opportunity to intern in Washington. The paper revealed the incident in a message sent on behalf of Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s senior vice president for news.

Pioneer PressThis Sun-Times Media paper fired staff photographer Tamara Bell after she repeatedly fabricated material for photo essays. It published a note to readers detailing the incident and saying the paper was taking additional measures to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. Publisher Chris Krug responded to an inquiry from me about the nature of these improvements, saying, “The process includes personnel training that addresses journalistic ethics in combination with the deployment of a photo-checking system activated continuously and at random.” Asked for more information about the checking system so that other newsrooms might benefit from the same system technology, he stopped replying to emails.

August

Fareed Zakaria – CNN host and Time magazine editor Fareed Zakaria confessed to plagiarizing two paragraphs from New Yorker writer Jill Lepore in a column for Time. He admitted this publicly and apologized. In response, Time and CNN both suspended him and released statements saying his status was under “review.” The Washington Post, which publishes a column by Zakaria, did not suspend him. I asked people from all three organizations if they were reviewing his past work for plagiarism as part of the “review.” Only CNN spokesperson Jennifer Dargan responded to say, “We are not detailing the internal process further than what has been already stated.” In the end, Time and CNN announced they did in fact review his past work and found no issues. In spite of Time initially announcing Zakaria was suspended for 30 days, it ended his suspension early and allowed him to return to work within two weeks.

Boston Globe – A Boston Globe editorial was partly plagiarized from an article published by NPR affiliate WBUR. The paper subsequently refused to identify the author, or any related disciplinary action. It also didn’t use the word plagiarism to describe the offense. Editorial page editor Peter S. Canellos told me that, “Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions.” He also declined to say if the paper was reviewing the writer’s previous work, saying, “We are taking all appropriate steps, given what we know about this incident.”

September

East Valley Tribune/The State Press — The East Valley Tribune announced that an intern from Arizona State University had plagiarized “several articles” while working at the paper back in the spring. The Tribune did not specify which articles or how many of them had been plagiarized. It didn’t say which sources were plagiarized, or why they only recently announced this. It was then soon revealed that ASU student paper The State Press had also recently discovered a plagiarist in its midst: Raquel Velasco. Her LinkedIn profile (which was subsequently removed) said she also worked at the East Valley Tribune.

Columbia Spectator — This student paper announced an article by Jade Bonacolta included portions taken from a New York Times article. She also fabricated a quote. A subsequent examination by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon found another example of theft.

In addition to the plagiarism and fabrication, news organizations made some high-profile mistakes which they often refused to talk about. Those follow.

June, SCOTUS health care decision – One of the biggest U.S. news events of 2012 saw two major cable news networks make the same, embarrassing error. CNN and Fox News both wrongly reported that the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate. CNN responded with a correction. Fox News declared that it “gave our viewers the news as it happened” and acted as if it had done nothing wrong.

July, Colorado Shooting – ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross implied on “Good Morning America” that Aurora shooter James Holmes may have been a member of a local Tea Party chapter. He wasn’t. Someone else with the same name was. ABC initially tried to deflect its error by noting that “other local residents with similar names were also contacted via social media by members of the public who mistook them for the suspect.” But it soon apologized. The head of ABC News, Ben Sherwood, later said the organization would “take steps” to prevent this from happening again. Though the Los Angeles Times reported “he declined to say specifically what those steps were.”

August, Tony Scott suicide – ABC News cited anonymous sources in erroneously reporting that Scott, a Hollywood director who committed suicide, had inoperable brain cancer. ABC News later said it would wait for word from the family before correcting its report. No word yet…

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tschmedding Teresa Schmedding

    That’s an excellent suggestion, Craig. Let me reach out to the other organizations, see what we can do. (Teresa Schmedding, ACES president)