How many journalists directly contacted Jonah Lehrer about fabrication, plagiarism accusations?

Jonah Lehrer told Los Angeles Magazine’s Amy Wallace that reporters following the story of his downfall had abandoned the basic tenets of journalism: “Despite the avalanche of coverage, he said, I was only the third person to contact him for comment.”

That statement presented the media-reporting establishment with an unbearable irony: Had journalists bypassed a basic mechanism of journalism while writing about another journalist’s alleged sins?

Part of the problem with looking at something like this is that Lehrer had people speaking on his behalf. His website lists only contact information for his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and his speaking agency. Read more


7 ways to make your work easy to fact check

Recent media incidents involving fabrication, plagiarism and untruthsJonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson — have underscored the importance of keeping one’s facts straight and making them easy for others to check.

Each case demonstrated what good fact checking could have done:

  • Jonah Lehrer: Prevent fabrication
  • Fareed Zakaria: Help keep writers from inadvertently plagiarizing others
  • Niall Ferguson: Stop falsehoods from entering the public discourse, where once released, they often spread farther than their corrections

In all these cases, fact checking prevents damage to the publication’s credibility, and helps avert further erosion of the public trust in journalism. For writers, getting the facts right (plus, not stealing other people’s work) can only help a career.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic who wrote in defense of fact checkers after the Ferguson incident, says, “Fact checkers will save your life. They’re there to keep you from looking stupid.”[1] But he also notes that not everyone is lucky enough to work at a publication with a fact checking department, which means that, often, especially if you are writing under a tight deadline, you and your editor will be the de facto fact checkers.[2]

Here are several tips for making your stories easy for yourself and others to fact check, based on interviews with Peter Canby, senior editor and head of fact checking at The New Yorker, whose fact checking department is probably the most famed in the country, and Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Beak of the Finch” and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. These tips were written to apply to freelancers or new newsroom journalists, but they apply universally.

1. When you get the assignment, ask your editor what he/she would like you to provide in terms of backup.[3]

This first step will save you time and the headache of rounding up missing information from sources after you’ve submitted the piece. Plus, the editor will likely be impressed you are asking. A publication like The New Yorker will tell you upfront what it wants, so if you aren’t dealing with that type of publication, take it upon yourself to find out what the expectation is.

2. Note the following information about your sources.

This is what The New Yorker fact checking department requests of its writers — and you should probably log these yourself even if you’re writing under a daily deadline:

  • The home and office numbers for every source you interview
  • The bibliographic information (author, title, date, link, publisher) for every document you use, including books and articles. For printed work, if you don’t have the originals, then make copies.[4]

3. If you’re researching on the Web …

Always note your source. If you’ve forgotten to do so, doing a Web search for the exact phrase you’ve copied can sometimes pull up the link again. If that doesn’t work, go through your browser history until you find the exact page.[5]

If you constantly forget, try, for a week, to change the way you normally do something mindlessly. For instance, try to open doors with your non-dominant hand.[6] According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, Stanford lecturer and author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It,” getting in the habit of thinking before doing something inconsequential will get you to stop and think before doing things that matter (i.e. logging sources).

4. If you’re reporting on site with a notepad …

Weiner, whose books have required him to report in conditions ranging from outdoors in the Galapagos Islands to labs at Princeton University, has adopted certain techniques to help him understand his notes no matter how he took them. He begins by clearly labeling his notes with the location, date, time, and who he’s with. “I also have little symbols that make it easy for myself to note when I’m writing down something verbatim and where I’m paraphrasing something so that when I go back, I know which is which,” he says.[7]

If he transcribes his notes, he draws a pencil line through each page that he’s transcribed so he knows he’s transcribed it. When he finishes transcribing a notebook, he puts a checkmark on the front and saves it. If you’re transcribing from a recording and you find a quote that you’re pretty sure you’ll use, note what time it appears in the tape.[8]

While on site, it also helps to take photos or video. That way, you can check any descriptions you put in your notes.[9] Plus, you’ll notice things you may not have noticed the first time around.

5. If you’re writing a piece with many sources …

As Canby noted in a talk he gave at Columbia Journalism School, which was published in “The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry,” fact checking is not only about getting the facts within a story right. It’s also about getting the big picture of the story right.[10] So, talking with your editor and/or the fact checker about why you’ve chosen to interview certain sources and exclude others can help you make sure you consider all necessary viewpoints. For the same reason, saving sources that you read for background but didn’t necessarily cite can also help others understand why you chose the angle or frame for your story.[11]

6. Keep your notes organized.

I personally have found special writers’ software especially useful for making sure I remember the source of each piece of information. Scrivener allows you to keep your research and your manuscript in the same “project,” and to link lines in your manuscript to the research sources you’ve saved, including Web pages and the day you accessed them, photos, audio, etc. DevonThink Pro [12] is also software for saving information in different formats, and free software such as Evernote [13] can be useful for the same.

Even if you decide not to collate your materials into one type of software, develop a system for keeping your folders, files, bookmarks and other research materials clearly labeled and organized so that you can find information and so that if you turn over everything to someone else, he or she can too.

7. As you write, note where each fact comes from.

If you’re writing for the Web, you can link to sources that you think readers would like to see. To cite sources just for your editor, work out a system with him or her. Paul Krugman, who also wrote about the Niall Ferguson incident, revealed how he informs his editor of his sources: a list of each fact, plus its Web link. Even if you’re writing in an online content management system, you can annotate facts in the story (1), (2), etc., and create your own footnotes at the bottom of the article.[14]

If you’re writing in word processing software that allows you to footnote, then fully notate each source, including page numbers for any books you cite.[15]

Either way, be thorough. Even if you include a fact that’s common knowledge, it still helps the editor or fact checker if you provide a reputable source.

Developing these habits will not only make you a better reporter, they will also make you beloved by your editors and, if you’re lucky enough to work at a publication with fact checkers, by them too. Best of all, it will help ensure your stories are error-free.

[1] Interview with Coates

[2] Interviews with Coates and Canby, plus personal experience

[3] Based on personal experience as an editor, plus on The New Yorker’s procedure of setting expectations with the writer

[4] Email interview with Peter Canby

[5] Based on personal experience

[6] Page 67 of “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal

[7] Interview with Weiner

[8] Interview with Weiner

[9] Based on my experience reporting, plus crowd-sourced tip from several journalists

[10] Page 80 of the book

[11] Extrapolated this tip based on what Peter Canby says about how helpful it can be to read a wide variety of Lexis-Nexis articles on the topic before writing about it. (Page 80 of the book.)

[12] http://www.problogger.net/archives/2007/01/25/devonthink-pro-and-scrivener-tools-for-writers/

[13] http://www.livehacked.com/writing-2/using-scrivener-and-evernote-to-write-your-book/

[14] Based on personal experience

[15] Canby interview Read more

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Yale Daily News finds errors, problematic quotes, but no fabrication in Liane Membis’ work

The Yale Daily News has completed its review of reporting by Liane Membis, a former staff reporter who was fired from an internship at the Wall Street Journal this summer after fabricating quotes from sources in several stories. (The Huffington Post also removed a Membis piece for the same reason.)

After investigating 35 reported articles written by Membis between 2009 and 2010, the News found no evidence of fabrication in her work. All sources quoted were real people, but three of them raised concerns about the way their words were represented. The paper’s fact-checking process also uncovered several errors in Membis’ work.

As with the recent plagiarism at The State Press at Arizona State University, the Yale paper did a good job of investigating previous work and sharing the results with readers.

In one disconcerting example of quotation issues found by the paper, Membis changed and added words to an emailed statement from a source.

This quote:

I think more prerequisites are not necessarily a bad move, because one of the reasons that turns junior architecture into a hefty shake for most people is the lack of a solid background (both in theory and in practice).

Became this quote:

And the other thing that gets junior architecture majors into a hefty shake is the lack of a solid historical background, both in theory and in practice.

“Although basic copy-editing of an email interview is acceptable, adding words to a direct quotation is not,” wrote editor-in-chief Max de La Bruyère. “The article in question has since been corrected online, with an editor’s note explaining the changes.”

De La Bruyère also pointed to an incorrect Membis paraphrase of the same source where she again added words that weren’t stated.

“This was the most egregious of a number of errors the News found in articles by Membis, which have since been corrected,” he wrote.

Membis’ work also included misspelled names and titles, and inaccurate quotes. The paper added corrections and editor’s notes to her work.

As a result of the investigation, it has “added further emphasis on sourcing, fact-checking, and journalistic ethics to our training for new journalists.” Read more


Wired.com investigator on latest Jonah Lehrer plagiarism: ‘I think the safety net has eroded’

Longtime science journalist Charles Seife was vaguely familiar with Jonah Lehrer’s work before Wired.com asked him two weeks ago to investigate a sample of blog posts for plagiarism, fabrication and other shortcuts.

“I didn’t have any pre-existing thoughts that this was a bad journalist,” Seife said by phone Friday night. “You go in really trying to prove innocence rather than guilt.”

But Seife found problems in 17 of the 18 blog posts he reviewed. In three of those posts, Lehrer plagiarized from other writers, in five he used verbatim portions of press releases, and in 14 posts he recycled his own writing from previously published pieces. It was this recycling, first reported by Jim Romenesko on June 19, that started the cascade of investigations and revelations about Lehrer’s books and his work for The New Yorker and Wired.

Seife’s investigation was not published on Wired.com, though. Instead, his findings were published on Slate at virtually the same time that Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen published a statement acknowledging the problems with Lehrer’s work and the end of Wired’s relationship with the writer.

Why Slate?

Seife said he does not know why Wired decided against running a report on the investigation they commissioned.

“I think that the industry doesn’t really have a standard for dealing with incidents like this,” he said. “It’s always handled on a case by case basis, and it depends on how beloved the person is and how serious the sins are and what the editor happens to think at the time. … 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.”

Whatever Wired’s reasoning, the NYU journalism professor felt strongly that the information he uncovered should be shared.

“The work that I did for Wired.com is pretty much public domain. It didn’t depend on the internal investigation, and so I felt I should publish it,” he said.

He chose Slate because he “wanted a site that could react quickly … and I have an existing relationship with Slate. I had written something for them not so long ago, and in fact I know the new editor there who’s a science journalist, who I knew when she worked at Science Magazine.”

Seife, who was a writer for Science Magazine, pitched the piece to Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate, and “on the order of a few hours” it was being edited and published.

Lehrer’s problems

Before the scandal that led to Seife’s investigation, he was “dimly aware” of Lehrer’s “reputation next to [Malcolm] Gladwell, with the good and the bad that entails. I think there’s a little bit of glibness that comes with packaging big ideas and distilling them into very, very consumable chunks. But there’s some value to it too,” he said.

“When I started reading his work more seriously in the wake of the scandal, from a science journalist point of view, I noticed that he was getting things wrong in a way that was disturbing,” Seife said. “What I particularly noticed was a credulousness when it came to studies — that every new study that supported one of his theses was great, even when there were clear methodological problems. And he cherry-picked.”

Then Seife read Michael Moynihan’s account of how Lehrer tried to cover up fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes in his book “Imagine.” “It really did remind me of the Stephen Glass affair,” Seife said by phone, echoing a tweet he sent at the time. “So I went in suspecting that there might be something.”

Still, Seife approached the process scientifically:

The first thing you do is you look for suspicious things, and you play devil’s advocate and find everything you can that looks like it could be … and then you narrow it down to solid-looking examples. And then you turn around and you try to disprove those. And you spend a lot of time trying to disprove it so that you’re left with no other conclusion. … In fact, I did clear him on a couple things I thought were fabricated quotations.

Overall, though, Seife said, “I did see a pattern, unfortunately.”

“Generally speaking, I think there was a food chain, and I think that his first-run articles for major outlets were where he was most careful. And I think that in his blog posts and in his books, there was a little bit more sloppiness. But even so I wouldn’t be surprised if you take a large enough sample of first run magazine articles, there’d be issues like this,” he said.

“I looked at 18 out of 250-some odd. I think there’s got to be a lot more examples there.”

During our conversation, Seife several times expressed empathy for Lehrer.

You go on an emotional roller coaster when you do something like this. When you see examples, you think, ‘Aha, this guy is no good,’ but at the same time you speak to the person and you try to get into their head and you feel a little empathy. So it goes up and down.

It’s not easy to damage someone’s career, whether a fellow journalist or doing investigative reporting, there’s always some level of empathy and some level of guilt, even if you know for sure the person has done wrong.

While Seife made no excuses for Lehrer, he also expressed concern about a journalism industry that missed the signs for so long and whose evolving culture may be enabling future Lehrers.

Industry issues

“The recycling went way back to 2007-2008, something like that, so when you think about how many people have seen the work and the fact that nobody said something. … It means there wasn’t enough attention paid on some level,” said Seife. “The media as a whole is cutting it kind of close when it comes to plagiarism.”

“I think the safety net has eroded,” he said. “Fact-checkers are disappearing, the editorial staff is getting threadbare. The mantra of do more with less is taking its toll.”

In his statement, Wired editor Hansen noted that Lehrer’s blog posts for Frontal Cortex were not edited or fact checked.

Seife worried that this sort of instant publishing “is a double-edged sword.” Editors might have slowed you down as a writer and robbed you of some freedom, but “at the same time they protected you,” he said.

“They made sure they challenged you. They forced you to think harder about your work, and if you screwed up, they kicked your ass. Lehrer, I think it’s really sad because I do think he’s a very clear writer, he’s able to distill ideas very well.

“And I think that if he had a bit more oversight early on in his career, if he had a good editor or two to kick his butt, I think he might have become a star that would never have fallen.” Read more


Wired severs ties with Jonah Lehrer after investigator finds 22 more examples of plagiarism, recycling

Slate | Wired
Wired.com asked NYU journalism professor Charles Seife to investigate Jonah Lehrer’s work for the website after it was revealed that the writer had recycled some of his own material for New Yorker posts and had fabricated quotes in one of his books. For reasons that are unclear, Wired.com did not publish the results of Seife’s investigation, but Slate did.

Seife reviewed 18 posts and found 14 instances in which Lehrer recycled his own work, five posts that included material directly from press releases, three posts that plagiarized from other writers, four posts with problematic quotations and four that had problematic facts. Here’s a table summarizing his findings: Read more


Timeline of Jonah Lehrer plagiarism, fabrication revelations

June 19: Jim Romenesko reported that Jonah Lehrer recycled material for a New Yorker story
June 19: Joe Coscarelli published additional examples of Lehrer recycling material in New Yorker blog posts
June 19: Jacob Silverman found examples of Lehrer recycling in stories for The New York Times
June 20: Edward Champion published a comprehensive catalog of Lehrer’s recycling
June 20: Lehrer apologized for recycling his own material
June 21: New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “…if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.”
July 30: Michael Moynihan revealed fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s “Imagine”
July 30: Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker Read more


Why the emphasis on young, promising journalists who plagiarize or fabricate?

Usually after an article of mine is published, I go back and reread it several times over the next 48 hours. This is mostly a masochistic exercise. I cringe over inelegant sentences and other things I failed to see and improve the first time.

Sometimes, however, I go back to a piece because the feedback I received sticks with me. That’s the case with my recent post, “4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits.”

The comments on the post were spirited and interesting, and other journalists used it as a jumping off point for their own thoughts. My Poynter colleague Roy Peter Clark suggested we could better prevent plagiarism and fabrication if newsrooms began instituting random checks of content. I agree.

John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun followed with a post, “The pressure’s on, and the editor’s gone.” He focused on what was probably the most quoted/tweeted excerpt from my piece:

Newsrooms ask for more, but offer less support. They expect performance, but devalue oversight and mentoring.

McIntyre added this:

Yes, you can save a pile of money by eliminating editors. You can also save money by eliminating inspectors at meat-packing plants. The question is what you plan to do about the inevitable consequences.

The people who fabricate and plagiarize are unquestionably responsible for their actions. But there is an element of collective responsibility that is often pushed aside or diminished when these incidents occur.

McIntyre points out there is a price to pay for reduced oversight and quality control: We are less equipped to prevent these incidents.

Clark also reminds us that newsrooms by and large do nothing to specifically discover these incidents ourselves. They are almost always detected by people outside of the news organization.

Focus on young journalists

Reaction to my post led me to believe I created confusion, and made some feel I was unfairly targeting young journalists. It’s right there in headline: “4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits.” I mention young writers many times in the post. That led to feedback from some journalists:

And this:

Or this:

An important point I should have made more clear is young journalists aren’t the only people who commit plagiarism or fabrication. (I’ll speak to Paul’s second criticism below.)

Veteran reporters and journalists in all career stages plagiarize and fabricate. We need look no further than Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission of plagiarism.

My Poynter colleague Kelly McBride is often contacted by news organizations when they discover an incident of plagiarism and/or fabrication. I asked her to share her analysis of whether age can be a factor in these incidents:

I’ve analyzed a lot of plagiarism and fabrication cases and I can say that veterans are not immune from the problem. However, I think when someone with more than 15 years of experience in daily journalism is busted for one of these transgressions, it usually reveals some deep, deep problem, like depression or addiction or some other something else going haywire.

That’s not to say that young journalists who’ve been caught stealing or making stuff up aren’t sometimes suffering from serious life issues. But by the time someone is into the late 30s, we expect him to have the maturity to stop the domino effect before it fatally impacts his work.

I can say that whenever an editor comes to me with suspicions of plagiarism or fabrication, I suggest they go back and look at past work. It seems like 90 percent of the time they find more. And that is true of veterans and novices. So that suggests to me that these acts of deception are patterns of choices, or habits, that both young and mid-career journalists are capable of making.

If you catch it early enough, I think you can reform a younger writer. I’m not sure what to do about the veterans.

Her final point speaks to one reason why I looked at young journalists. The focus on young journalists — which would include me, if you take Kelly’s late 30s threshold as the mark of an older journalist — is partly because we have an opportunity and responsibility to help them succeed and create good, ethical habits. I worry that’s happening less these days in shrunken newsrooms with non-existent training budgets.

Certainly, it must be said, some people are beyond help and simply need to be weeded out quickly.

Another obvious reason for looking at young journalists is the most recent incidents of fabrication involved young journalists. In looking at these cases, I saw similarities that also evoked the cases of Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and other famous young and, dare I say, once-promising journalists-turned-fabricators.

In my post, I turned these similarities into warning signs that people in newsrooms can identify early on, and hopefully nudge a person onto the right path. Or get them the hell out of the profession as soon as possible.

That leads to another important question I wish I had an answer to: When do people start doing this? Do young journalists get busted in seemingly higher numbers because people start doing this early in a career?

This is where I admit to being frustrated by a lack of data. (As background, I’ve been cataloguing incidents of plagiarism and fabrication since 2005. To view an overview of that data, read my 2011 roundup.)

I try to count the number of incidents of plagiarism and fabrication each year, but I don’t know when people start or why. This would be a great area of research, provided someone can gain access to fabricators and plagiarists.

The question of pressure

Along with my focus on young journalists, Canadian journalist Paul McLeod said on Twitter that he didn’t agree with the suggestion that “it could happen to any of us.” This related to a quote from Jayson Blair near the end of my post:

I think fundamentally because of this trust in each other, our colleagues and our friends, we’re very slow to realize that any of us, under the right pressure, is capable of anything.

Paul asked me if I really believed that anyone could be capable of plagiarizing or fabricating:

This goes to McBride’s point that she’s often seen a link between a personal issue and a more experienced journalist’s decision to plagiarize or fabricate. Pressures can take many forms: financial, professional, emotional, etc.

My point is that plagiarists and fabricators aren’t some “other.” They are us. They are people who make these decisions for a reason, and the way news organizations operate makes it possible for a number of them to get away with it for at least a certain period of time.

If we look at plagiarists and fabricators as a strange kind of species separate from the rest of us, then I think it’s easier to convince ourselves that it can’t happen in our newsroom, with our colleagues.

But it can and it does.

It happens in newsrooms large and small, with men and women, and, yes, with young and old.

When you think about it, the one thing they always have in common is that they are journalists. Read more

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Another source claims Lehrer misconduct: ‘I know I didn’t say’ half of that

WhatIWannaKnow.com | Michael Moynihan | Slate
Milton Glaser, the artist best known for inventing the “I ♥ NY” logo, tells interviewer Ryan Kohls he never said half of what Jonah Lehrer attributed to him in his book “Imagine.” He also calls Lehrer’s behavior “self-sabotage.”

Well, it was so odd the whole thing. First off, I felt so sad for the poor guy. Here he was, his future guaranteed, top of the world working for the New Yorker, writing a book that had already sold 200,000 copies, and he shot himself. How could he have done that knowing it was inevitable he would be discovered? What kind of madness? Why would anybody do that? The self-sabotage to that degree was incomprehensible. I looked back at what I had said and half of it I know I didn’t say. … If you had modest intelligence, why would you set yourself up for the disaster of your life that would ruin your life forever? He will never recover from this.

Michael Moynihan, the journalist who first uncovered Lehrer’s fabrications in “Imagine,” corroborates on Twitter: “A few weeks back, I briefly corresponded with the great Milton Glaser regarding his appearance in Lehrer’s Imagine. … There was a quote that was supposedly from [Lehrer's] interview w/him that appeared lifted from another source. Glaser told me that while … the info was generally correct, he ‘believe[d] parts of it were picked up from other articles and parts were not in my voice.’ ”

Moynihan provided the two quotes by email: Read more


Pity Wired’s fact-checkers if Jonah Lehrer writes again for the magazine

Update: BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke the news Wednesday that Wired is keeping confessed fabricator, problematic science writer, and self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer on contract.

Wired spokesman Jonathan Hammond told the site that Lehrer had “a couple of pieces that were already in the works” and was expected to contribute in the future.

Based on that information, I examined what this meant for the magazine’s fact-checking department, as did The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. The original version of this post remains below, but parts of it have been eclipsed by a new statement, issued by Wired Managing Editor Jacob Young, that contradicts what Hammond said:

[Lehrer] has no current assignments. After gathering the facts–from our inquiry and elsewhere–we’ll make a decision about whether Jonah’s byline will appear again at WIRED.

That’s a different scenario. It’s a much better course of action to complete the review of Lehrer’s stories before letting him work on new pieces. I’m glad that’s the case, and it renders my first two points below moot.

My third point was that someone from Wired’s masthead should have explained the magazine’s decision to keep Lehrer on contract. On Wednesday, Hammond was unable to say whether Lehrer’s new work would receive special attention from editors and fact-checkers.

I wrote, “If Wired is going to stand by Lehrer, then someone from the masthead should do so publicly. It sends a stronger message and provides better information.”

The new statement from Young demonstrates the value of having editorial people talk publicly about editorial decisions.

That said, I apologize that my original post included incorrect information about Wired’s plans. Regardless of the source of that information, I used it as a jumping-off point and that’s my error.

The original version of this post follows:

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke the news that Wired is keeping confessed fabricator, problematic science writer, and self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer on contract. He had a few pieces “in the works” and is also expected to contribute new material for the magazine in the future.

The decision was seemingly made, in part, because, as a Wired spokesman said, “To date we have not come across anything that seems too troubling” during an investigation into Lehrer’s previous print work. Spokesman Jon Hammond noted the magazine is “continuing our process of vetting” Lehrer’s online material.

Three things to note about this decision.

1. Wired has chosen to keep Lehrer on contract and let him continue to work on material even though they haven’t yet completed a review of his work for the website. Is it really so urgent to have Lehrer on assignment that the magazine can’t wait until it’s given all of his work, online and print, a clean bill of health?

More importantly, does this decision help Lehrer come to terms with why he did what he did, and understand what was/is going on? I worry that carrying on as usual gives Lehrer a reason to not dig into the true cause(s) of his transgressions.

For the record, I have no idea what that might be. But a pattern of deception like his is about more than sloppy work.

2. I feel really bad for the Wired fact-checking team right now. Erik Wemple asked Hammond if Lehrer’s work would receive special attention in terms of quality control, and this is what the spokesman said:

I can’t speak to that only because that’s a question our editors will have to assess when the time is right. I am confident that they will ensure, as they always have, that anything published by Wired is throoughly [sic] fact-checked and accurate.

Wired has, by all accounts, a top notch fact-checking department. It’s one of the few still operating inside magazines. And now, thanks to a decision by higher-ups, these checkers will carry the weight of the decision to keep Lehrer on contract.

Not only do they have to do their usual, tough job of ensuring the magazine publishes material that is factually accurate and legally defensible, they also have to justify the decision to keep working with Lehrer.

They need to ensure everything in his pieces for Wired is watertight. There is no room for error, and ultimately it’s the checkers who are responsible for this. Lehrer and his editor(s) want this to work out as well, of course. But the checkers need to be foolproof to help everyone look good.

That’s added pressure they could do without.

3. Hammond says he doesn’t know if the magazine has any special plans for handling Lehrer’s work. I suppose you can’t expect a spokesman to know this information offhand.

So perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, an editor from Wired could offer an explanation of the decision to keep Lehrer on contract, and how they plan to ensure the quality of his work?

I have nothing against spokespeople, and there are many questions and issues for which they are well suited to offer comment and response. But this is a significant and controversial editorial decision. If Wired is going to stand by Lehrer, then someone from the masthead should do so publicly. It sends a stronger message and provides better information.

Related: Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists | How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations Read more


How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations

Editors often call us in a panic. A reader or another journalist has shown them credible evidence that one of their writers has plagiarized the work of others or, more rarely, suggested that sources, quotes or other information are fabricated.

The way an organization responds to plagiarism or fabrication can affect its relationship with its community, its staff, and its standing in the profession. The right response can help build or maintain trust. A weak response fuels distrust.

With that in mind, here’s a guide to handling an incident or plagiarism or fabrication.

Before an incident occurs

Review newsroom policy regarding attribution, plagiarism and fabrication. Does one exist? Is it current? Who manages it? If need be, bring it up to date by designating a person or newsroom committee to take ownership. As part of the policy, require that managers meet with team members quarterly to openly discuss standards, answer questions, and gather feedback on ways the policy might need to be amended, updated, or supported by training and communication. A good policy should address these questions:

  • How should writers attribute quotes or other material gathered from outside publications, including wire services, or other stories published by your own newsroom?
  • What is your newsroom standard for using press releases, video packages provided public relations agencies, and other marketing material?
  • How should journalists reveal the means by which they gathered information? For example, if an interview was conducted by email, on the telephone or in person, should that be noted?
  • Some stories required a repeated block of background text. What’s the best way to create, display and attribute that text?
  • How should editors respond when evidence of plagiarism surfaces?

Designate a person or committee (of no more than three people) to routinely refresh the policy.

When an accusation/incident is reported

  • It’s not hard to figure out if an initial allegation is credible. If the publication date preceded your own writer’s publication, and if there are strings of identical words (more than seven words), it merits a closer look.
  • Bring the writer and the editor who handled the copy in and tell them about the allegation. Ask the writer to gather all source material, including press releases, links, written notes and other articles used in researching the story.
  • In most cases, a writer should not publish any additional material until the initial review is complete. There may be exceptions for stories that can’t wait.
  • A senior editor should review the story in question, looking for identical sentences and phrases. There are degrees of plagiarism, from minor to major. The more similarities, the greater the offense.
  • When fabrication is suspected, the editor should call sources used for the story. If the reporter does not have contact information, databases should be used to try and track the sources down to determine if they indeed exist and said what is attributed to them.
  • Once the editor determines if plagiarism and/or fabrication occurred, the reporter and his immediate editor should be told.

When you’ve verified an incident

  • Present the evidence to the writer and ask for an explanation. Ask if it has ever happened before, and explain that previous work will be examined.
  • Either select a time period or randomly select stories or look at everything. Whenever possible, utilize plagiarism detection services to deliver an initial analysis of work, and to enable the examination to proceed quickly. However, material flagged by a plagiarism detection service must be examined individually.
  • When looking for possible fabrications, recruit a small team of editors to randomly contact suspect sources from the writer’s work, and to check out other information that could fit a pattern of fabrication.
  • While the investigation is ongoing, the reporter should not publish any new material. Many editors will suspend a writer with or without pay during this phase.
  • In a case of verified fabrication, suspension is the minimal response. Termination is a more fitting punishment. For a different view, SPJ’s Scott Leadingham argues that excommunication is no deterrent and rehabilitation can be an option. (News organizations have their own policies when it comes to human resources.)
  • As you verify instances of plagiarism or fabrication, announce the findings in an editor’s note, apologize to readers and anyone specifically affected; explain the suspension and ongoing examination of previous work.  Designate a single spokesperson from the masthead to handle inquiries.
  • Correct or append all digital versions of stories as problems surface. Keep your audience informed.
  • At the conclusion of the review of previous work, release the findings publicly online and in any other mediums where the offender’s work appeared. Place editor’s notes atop any online content that contained plagiarized or fabricated material. If original, offending content must be removed, place the editor’s note at the same URL where the work previously appeared. Do not simply disappear the content.
  • Investigate claims from other media and members of the public when they say they have found other incidents.
  • Meet with staff to communicate the policies regarding attribution, sourcing and ethics. Determine if the policies need to be updated or if this incident requires additional training or support for staff.
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