8 key questions and answers about the Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal

After a disconcerting summer that saw prominent American journalists accused of plagiarism and fabrication, Canada is currently in the throes of its own high-profile ethics scandal.

A series of concerns have been raised about a 2009 story by Margaret Wente, national columnist with The Globe And Mail.

Carol Wainio, writing at Media Culpa, is a visual artist and professor who has written several posts over the years highlighting concerns about Wente’s work.

Her latest post, which I saw before it was published, includes a series of side by side comparisons of Wente’s work with that of other writers and sources. (Disclosure: I have a history with the Globe and Wainio, details appear below.)

Wainio and I have corresponded for several years, dating back to a time before she launched the blog, which I encouraged her to do. Wainio has also filed complaints with the Ontario Press Council in the past, some of which have been upheld.

In my view, Wainio’s post is convincing and highlights serious problems with Wente’s work. I said as much to Wainio when she showed it to me before it was published. I also expressed that view when I emailed the post to Globe Public Editor Sylvia Stead after it was published. My hope was that the paper would take the concerns seriously.

Stead published a column about the accusations last week, and referred to Wainio as an “anonymous blogger.” She then followed up today with another post in which she acknowledged, “I should have referred to the blogger’s complaints, not the anonymous blogger. I will not name her because she chooses to write anonymously. While others in our pages and elsewhere have named her, I will respect her right to post her views anonymously.”

Stead’s initial column, rather than putting the issue to rest, inspired an onslaught of reaction from other journalists. Today, in her follow up, she admits that column had shortcomings.

“In my haste to respond, my earlier blog post was not well considered,” she wrote. “I didn’t have all the information I required to make a proper assessment last week and should have taken more time and probed more.”

Monday night, the Globe announced that Wente will be disciplined, and that Stead will now report to the paper’s publisher, rather than to the editor in chief. (I highlighted that original, troubling reporting structure when I wrote about Stead’s appointment as public editor.)

Wente also wrote a column published a column Monday night, in which she said this:

Columnists often write about the same subjects and often reach similar conclusions. That isn’t plagiarism. But there is a sentence from Mr. Gardner’s column that also appears in my column. The only explanation is that I put it in my notes, then put it in my column. That was extremely careless and, for that, I apologize. …

Some of the other allegations turn on the fact that I didn’t name the exact source of every quote I used, that I used some of Prof. Paarlberg’s explanatory material without attributing enough of it to him, and that I moved in and out of quoted material too freely.There was no intent to deceive. My column was rooted in his work research and observations, and I never pretended otherwise. My aim was to be conversational and readable, and to present the gist of his work – not to pass off other people’s words or ideas as my own. Journalistic practice around quotations and attribution has become far more cautious in the past few years, and mine has, too. If I were writing that column again today, I would quote and attribute more carefully.

Wente also took some swipes at Wainio, writing that she

…has been publicly complaining about my work for years. Her website, Media Culpa, is an obsessive list of accusations involving alleged plagiarism, factual errors, attribution lapses and much else. She has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion. Globe editors have spent countless hours reviewing every complaint from her, and have been quick to correct the record when warranted.

Questions remain about Wente’s work and the Globe’s response. Below is an attempt to examine them.

1. Is Carol Wainio an anonymous blogger?

No. She has never hidden her identity in dealing with Globe. Though it’s not displayed on her blog, she has contributed similar posts under her own name to The Mark, and she has contacted the Globe in the past to raise concerns about Wente’s work. These emails have resulted in corrections and editor’s notes, and were in some cases handled by Stead herself. There is a history between Wainio and the Globe, and that should have been clear in Stead’s response.

The use of the term “anonymous blogger” in Stead’s column struck many as dismissive as well as inaccurate.

2. Okay, so she’s not anonymous. But who is she to be calling out a big-time columnist?

She’s a reader, and a diligent one. Those are all the credentials she needs, as long as she can provide clear and easily verified evidence to support her claims. Wainio has done that, repeatedly, in my view. Some of her concerns are debatable, of course. But she consistently raises legitimate issues worthy of attention.

Last week I asked Wainio how she manages to surface issues so consistently.

“It’s not that hard to find these things – which is why it’s odd that editors can’t do it,” she said in an email. “I look at  quotes – especially those with no clear source. And often enough (there are several documented instances) adjacent prose will be included – either from some other journalist or the expert, or [Wente will] take a larger chunk of the expert’s remarks, but provide quotation marks for only part of it.”

She continued: “I don’t go line by line unless I get the impression there’s something off. And I don’t spend that much time on it. It’s not a vendetta. It’s kind of amusing and occasionally informative.”

3. Was part of the questionable column by Wente plagiarized?

Yes. Chris Selley points to three clear instances of plagiarism in this good take on the issue.

One big issue with the column is that Wente should have cited clearly that an Ottawa Citizen column by Dan Gardner was a major source she used in crafting her column. The interview he conducted is all over her work, but he doesn’t earn a single mention and quotes he gathered are misattributed.

In her Monday column explaining herself, Wente writes, “I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.”

It’s true that many people have strong opinions about Wente’s views, but that’s irrelevant when you look at the evidence.

4. Is the definition of plagiarism in flux due to a “remix culture” and aggregation?

Are you serious?

The Globe’s top editor, John Stackhouse, was clear in the letter he sent to staff about this last tonight:

The journalism in this instance did not meet the standards of The Globe and Mail, in terms of sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others.

If you make your living writing opinion columns, reporting, or otherwise working as a journalist, then you attribute your work. You put sentences taken from elsewhere in quotes, or you express the ideas in your own words, and give the courtesy of citing the source. You make it clear where your material is coming from. You do this because it helps strengthen your words, rather than weaken them. You do it because it’s honest and ethical and expected by every reputable news organization — and also by readers.

That said, Jesse Brown has an interesting take on this incident, and a related issue at play:

Online, we copy and paste each other’s words and add our own. If the link is intact, it’s a sample and not a swipe. Ideas and arguments evolve organically and rapidly. Adding something meaningful to a conversation is more important than rephrasing it in our own words.

Yes, how about less time spent rewriting things that can simply be quoted, and more time crafting a point of view or gathering information to add to the previously-stated words?

I look at Wente’s column and there is little that moves Gardner’s work forward. Why expend all your effort rephrasing and remixing when you could quote and attribute and move on to add some value?

5. What about Wente’s assertion that “Journalistic practice around quotations and attribution has become far more cautious in the past few years, and mine has, too”?

It’s an interesting point. I agree that the practice of linking and pointing to the work of other journalists online is growing at news organizations. This is a good thing.

I wouldn’t, however, describe this as “more cautious.” I’d go with “more ethical.”

6. Stead made a point of noting that Wente writes three columns a week. Maybe that’s a factor?

Maybe it’s a factor, but it’s not an excuse.

If Wente’s workload is leading to errors or the problems present in the column, then she and her editors can work to find a better arrangement.

To offer a personal example, I’ve recently been traveling much more than usual, and it was causing my copy to include more typos, misspelled names, or other mistakes. My editor and I talked about it, and we agreed on a plan of action that included me focusing less on rush-to-publish news posts and more on longer pieces. It’s helping.

7. Is Stead’s job in danger?

It is unlikely that a paper would fire a public editor for writing something that has been viewed as overly supportive of one of the paper’s marquee names.

Stead is also the paper’s first public editor, and a firing is not the way they want to kick off the position.

Now the paper has announced a change in the problematic reporting structure. Stead will now report to the publisher, which may make her position more secure than before.

8. Is the Globe Editor’s note a sufficient reaction?

No.

Here’s what has been appended to Wente’s column: “Editor’s Note: This column contains thoughts and statements by Professor Robert Paarlberg which are paraphrased and not always clearly identified.”

It was later updated to add a second sentence: “Other sources including an Ottawa Citizen columnist were also paraphrased and their work not attributed.”

Some of the column does paraphrase and not attribute. In that regard, the editor’s note is correct. But this is not a paraphrase:

Wente:

They believe traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn’t be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside.

Paarlberg speaking to Gardner:

They believe that traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn’t be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside.

Wente took what Paarlberg said and presented it as her own. There was no paraphrase.

And yet there is no mention of plagiarism in the updated Editor’s Note. And Dan Gardner still doesn’t get any credit.

There’s also no link to the related public editor column that led to the Editor’s Note. Will a link be added to the story about Wente being disciplined, and Stackhouse saying her work fell short of the paper’s standards? Or the column from Wente? There’s nothing there now.

But there are 296 comments on Wente’s column as of Tuesday morning, many of them angry about her response and the paper’s.

In addition, the paper has not said whether it will review more recent Wente columns in order to ascertain whether, as Stackhouse put it, her work has met Globe standards in “terms of sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others.”

Wente says in her new column that, “If I were writing that column again today, I would quote and attribute more carefully.” How long has this been the case for the way she writes?

We don’t know.

As I noted in my recent “Summer of Sin” piece, news organizations need to meet the same standards of transparency and accountability that they demand of other institutions.

Kenny Yum, the managing editor of Huffington Post Canada and a former longtime Globe employee, put it well Monday, prior to the measures announced by the paper:

So as I watch — as a fellow journalist and a former Globe employee — on how this vaunted newspaper handles this crisis, I think how it reacts in the coming days will speak to the standards it wishes to hold itself to. In the digital age, public trust can be earned as quickly as it takes to do a Google search or read a few tweets — and that trust can just as quickly be lost.

That’s one journalist’s perspective. Now here’s a reporter’s reaction to the Stackhouse memo:

And one from a former journalist who now does political advertising:

Disclosures: I was a columnist and blogger for The Globe And Mail for close to two years, and was also a regular contributor to the paper for year or so beyond that. It’s been years since I was published in the paper. Its public editor, Sylvia Stead, and I have exchanged emails since she took over her role. We also exchanged a few off the record emails when I sent her the link to Wainio’s piece.

Spundge, a company where I’m a partner, has been in talks with the Globe to use our software. I will likely be back at the Globe in coming weeks to show the latest version. There is no financial arrangement between the two companies, as of now. Stead has never been involved in those discussions or demos, nor have Wente or Stackhouse.

As for Ms. Wainio, she has been emailing me for a few years about what she has found in Wente’s work, along with other problematic columns she has identified at other publications. I encouraged her to launch a blog to share what she was finding. That may or may not have played a part in her decision to launch Media Culpa.

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  • Anonymous

    A tempest in a teapot. There are far more important issues to deal with in Canada.

  • Clayton Burns

    John Stackhouse should not have run the Wente column today that defends her practices.
    One thing that is familiar at The Globe and Mail is editorial incoherence. One of the paper’s best writers has complained to me about it.
    I was disappointed that Wente avoided discussing the evidence in her column. But the more serious issue is that after his decision on the merits, John Stackhouse should not have allowed the Wente column today to run. It makes him look ridiculous.
    John did respond graciously to me on the American ambassador’s “day of reckoning” in Libya as reported in The G&M, but I can’t say that he fully understands the implications of such insensitivity to language.
    Canadian papers are a disappointment.
    –The Globe’s top editor, John Stackhouse, was clear… about this last tonight:
    The journalism in this instance did not meet the standards of The Globe and Mail, in terms of sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others.

  • http://twitter.com/MBolero Morley Bolero

    Sadly, the G&M is now going after Wong in court to recover the money they paid her, insisting that she violated their on disclosure agreement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nadine.lumley Nadine Lumley

    Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has won the coveted “World
    Idiot of the Year”

    http://www.urnews.ca/2011/11/globes-wente-crowned-world-idiot-of-the-year/

  • http://www.facebook.com/nadine.lumley Nadine Lumley

    Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has won the coveted “World
    Idiot of the Year”

    http://www.urnews.ca/2011/11/globes-wente-crowned-world-idiot-of-the-year/

  • http://www.facebook.com/nadine.lumley Nadine Lumley

    Jan Wong, once one of Canada’s most feared reporters, took on a powerful corporation, the Globe and Mail
    newspaper, which fired her after she suffered a major depressive
    episode. Despite the terrible toll the disease took on her, she
    refused to capitulate to what she deemed a wrongful dismissal.

    Eventually, she won an undisclosed cash settlement. Wong also spurned her former employer’s demand that she sign a
    gag order.

    And this month, she exposes the sordid details of her
    mental-health ordeal at the Globe and Mail in a compelling and sometimes amusing new
    self-published book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness.
    http://www.straight.com/article-679671/vancouver/wong-triumphs-over-workplace-depression?page=0%2C0

  • http://www.facebook.com/nadine.lumley Nadine Lumley

    Jan Wong, once one of Canada’s most feared reporters, took on a powerful corporation, the Globe and Mail
    newspaper, which fired her after she suffered a major depressive
    episode. Despite the terrible toll the disease took on her, she
    refused to capitulate to what she deemed a wrongful dismissal.

    Eventually, she won an undisclosed cash settlement. Wong also spurned her former employer’s demand that she sign a
    gag order.

    And this month, she exposes the sordid details of her
    mental-health ordeal at the Globe and Mail in a compelling and sometimes amusing new
    self-published book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness.
    http://www.straight.com/article-679671/vancouver/wong-triumphs-over-workplace-depression?page=0%2C0

  • http://twitter.com/Russell_Barth Russell Barth

    i would suggest that Wente’s oft-mentioned love of fine wines might have something to do with not only her sloppy work, but her consistently belligerent attitude towards those who disagree with her. Her column was the written equivalent of Armstrong’s booze-filled rant on stage the other night. http://twitpic.com/ay6j4m