There were 31 incidents of plagiarism/fabrication in 2012

2012 was the worst year for fabrication and plagiarism since I began collecting data in 2005.

My tally ended up with 31 incidents of plagiarism/fabrication, four more than the previous high water mark in 2006. (Note: I count the exposure of a serial plagiarist as a single incident, rather than adding a digit for each time they stole.)

Aside from that, this year was notable in that it saw three serial fabricators exposed at newspapers in the United States. There were also two serial plagiarists who, strangely, both stole humor columns. Then there was ESPN writer Lynn Hoppes, a serial plagiarist who stole exclusively from Wikipedia.

On the serial fabrication side of things, the first to be exposed was New Canaan News reporter Paresh Jha, who fabricated sources and quotes in at least 25 stories. Then came Tamara Bell, a staff photographer for Sun-Times Media who made up names and quotes for photo essays.

Finally, just last week, longtime Cape Cod Times reporter Karen Jeffrey admitted to fabricating sources and quotes in her reporting. She was the worst offender, with the paper reporting that “editors have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998.”

The scale of offenses by Jeffrey and Jha make them two of the worst serial fabricators in modern journalism. The same can be said for serial humor plagiarists Steve Jeffrey and Jon Flatland. Hoppes is also an astoundingly frequent offender.

Finally, of course, there was Jonah Lehrer, who was first outed as a self-plagiarist and was soon revealed to have also fabricated and plagiarized.

One important caveat about this year’s total of 32 incidents is that there are more people and organizations searching for and reporting on these incidents. This is of course a good thing. For example, Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics do a good job surfacing and covering these incidents. The more people on the beat, or playing the Google Game, the more incidents we will uncover.

In my opinion, we are surfacing more incidents than in previous years. So keep that in mind when comparing the data. At the same time, this was by any measure a terrible year in terms of the egregiousness of the offenses, and the frequency of them.

As I previously noted, one of the disheartening aspects of 2012 was the lack of accountability by newsrooms when the worst occurred within their ranks. We can and should do more to prevent plagiarism and fabrication and to be accountable to the public when these incidents occur.

Fortunately, there is a group organized by the American Copy Editors Society at work on an ebook to help newsrooms do a better job of preventing and handling incidents of plagiarism and fabrication. (I’m participating in the group.)

This is encouraging news, but at this time of reflection I hope every newsroom and newsroom leader takes time to think about prevention, and about how they would handle a serious ethical transgression.

So, on to the list…

January

• The Fairfield Minuteman fired sports editor Eric Montgomery after he plagiarized from two competing papers.

February

A story on FoxNews.com included passages lifted from The Atlantic Wire. The site later added an editor’s note about the plagiarism and offered an apology.

March

The Sentry, a small newspaper in Maine fired reporter Michael J. Tobin for plagiarizing from two Maine newspapers, The Forecaster and Current. Tobin also wrote about a local council meeting as if he’d been there when he hadn’t.

• A writer for The Colonnade, a student newspaper at Georgia College & State University, was dismissed after plagiarizing from the Associated Press.

The Gazette of Montreal fired longtime soccer columnist, and former copy editor, Paul Carbray after discovering he had repeatedly plagiarized in his columns.

• Jon Flatland, a columnist and former president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, was exposed as a serial plagiarist. He repeatedly, and brazenly, stole from humor writers over a long period of time. Writer Dave Fox, who exposed Flatland, estimated that “80 to 90 percent” of Flatland’s columns included stolen material.

• Yet another serial plagiarist of humor writers was also exposed in March. Steve Jeffrey, the publisher and editor of the Anchor Weekly in Chestermere, Alberta, plagiarized a significant portion of his  “Sittin’ in the Lighthouse” columns. George Waters exposed the plagiarism, noting that he identified stolen material in 42 of the 52 columns he looked at. Jeffrey initially denied the accusation and then issued a public apology and reached a financial settlement with one writer whose work he stole on a regular basis.

April

The Contra Costa Times apologized to the Los Angeles Times after it discovered that an editorial it published in early April was  ”nearly identical” in its “approach” to one previously published by the latter.

Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Flock resigned after a Post editor’s note reported that “An earlier version of this report made inappropriate, extensive use of an original report by Discovery News and also failed to credit that news organization as the primary source for the blog post.” This followed an editor’s note in December.

• The Reporter, a magazine published at the Rochester Institute of Technology, fired three writers after discovering plagiarism in two articles.

May

• Salon.com and Erik Wemple of the Washington Post both presented evidence that Arnaud de Borchgrave, a Washington Times columnist and director and senior adviser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had plagiarized from AP and ClickZ.com, among other sources. The paper announced that de Borchgrave would take a leave of absence while it investigated. When Wemple followed up a month later about the results of the investigation, he didn’t receive a reply. CSIS also investigated and the result was that it “reinforced to everyone at CSIS the importance of adhering to strict standards when it comes to properly and precisely attributing intellectual content. The issue has been discussed with Arnaud, and we don’t expect any future problems.”

Tablet magazine exposed the plagiarism of Italian journalist and author Giulio Meotti.

June

• Hundreds of stories produced by journalism outsourcing company Journatic contained fake bylines, and in one case, plagiarized material and fabricated information.

• The New Canaan News, a small Hearst paper in Connecticut, discovered it 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 offered nothing more than a 152-word brief about the offenses.

• 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 and Wired later severed ties with him.

• 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.

• Author Michael Norman discovered that a syndicated Oliver North column included unattributed use of a quote that had appeared in Norman’s book. After The Washington Post reported on the issue, Fox News pulled the North column offline.

• The Poughkeepsie Journal apologized to the Daily Freeman of New York for lifting material from a story about a proposed tuition hike.

July

• 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 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.

Deadspin exposed that ESPN writer Lynn Hoppes had plagiarized from Wikipedia on numerous occasions. ESPN did nothing about the plagiarized pieces until December, when ESPN vice president and executive editor John Walsh was questioned about Hoppes during a visit to a journalism class, which caused him to make comments about Deadspin writer Josh Koblin, including that Hoppes and Koblin had competed for the affections of the same woman. After Koblin noted that he is gay, Walsh called him to dispute the quotes taken from the class and said the plagiarized work would be removed from ESPN.com. Hoppes is still employed by ESPN.

August

• 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 initially suspended him. After they reviewed his work, Time and CNN found no further issues with Zakaria’s work in subsequent reviews.

• 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, and didn’t use the word plagiarism to describe the offense.

Romenesko reported that Nevada Appeal columnist Bob Thomas’ Aug. 9 column included material taken from a long-circulating Internet essay.

September

• The East Valley Tribune announced that an intern from Arizona State University had plagiarized several articles while working at the paper. It was soon revealed that ASU student paper The State Press had also recently discovered a plagiarist in its midst: Raquel Velasco. She also worked at the East Valley Tribune.

• Student paper the Columbia Spectator 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.

• The Sydney Morning Herald suspended and then fired columnist Tanveer Ahmed after he was exposed as a serial plagiarist in a report by Media Watch. Ahmed later published a column apologizing for his plagiarism, noting, “The reality is dawning upon me that I’ve been a plagiarist for the past couple of years. I didn’t know the extent of the problem.” Strangely, however, the apology was published by The Australian, rather than the Herald. The paper said it wasn’t “appropriate to publish” the apology column from its former columnist. What?

• Globe And Mail Columnist Margaret Wente was suspended by the paper after she was found to have plagiarized in a column. The paper’s editor said later that Wente’s column “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.”

October

• A writer for Penn State’s The Daily Collegian was suspended after an article he wrote was found to have contained fabricated quotes and plagiarized material.

November

• Hartford Courant reporter Hillary Federico resigned after the paper found “words or phrases that bear strong similarities to work that appeared in other publications” in two of her stories.

December

• Longtime Cape Cod Times reporter Karen Jeffrey was exposed as a serial fabricator. In an apology to readers, the paper’s editor and publisher reported that “editors have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998.” When confronted, Jeffrey confessed to fabricating people and quotes.

Note: the June to September entries of the above are excerpted taken from a previous post of mine.

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