Fired KC Star reporter sues, says using press releases isn’t plagiarism

Courthouse News Service

Steve Penn was fired by the Kansas City Star last July for using material from press releases in his columns. Editors found repurposed prose in "more than a dozen examples in Penn’s columns dating back to 2008."

Now Penn is suing McClatchy Newspapers, the Star's owner, asking for $25,000 plus punitive damages.

In his complaint, Penn, who joined the paper in 1980, says "the widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished, and preferably with no or minimal editing." (You can read his complaint here.)

Penn maintains that copying from press releases was always OK at the Star and his firing resulted from management's failure to make it clear that there'd been a shift in policy. "Acting pursuant to his training and to widespread practice at the newspaper, he would occasionally use in his general interest column press releases which described upcoming community events."

In fact, Plaintiff's experience and training at the Star was that such attribution was not required. ... Nevertheless, one of those supervisors apparently objected to the widespread practice and without informing Plaintiff that it should no longer be followed, decided to "make an example" of Plaintiff and push for his firing.

Penn says the paper's assertion that what he did was plagiarism defamed him and caused "damage to [Penn's] reputation and a loss of business standing and contacts as a professional" and has caused "lost job opportunities."

The Star's original article about Penn no longer appears to be online,
but Poynter's Steve Myers summarized some of its points:

  • A column last month about the death of a restaurateur took “descriptive phrases and entire portions from a funeral parlor’s release.”
  • In March, he wrote a lead sentence that “was identical to the first sentence in a press release” and copied (or nearly copied) other paragraphs.
  • Another June column “repeated nearly an entire release about a partnership between the Duke Ellington family and Alaadeen Enterprises Inc. to aid U.S. veterans.”
  • Last year, WUSA in Washington, D.C., removed a story from its website after a Web producer there copied material into a story thinking it was from a press release, when it was, in fact, from The Washington Post. The producer told Poynter she'd been working on rewriting five press releases at the time.

    • Andrew Beaujon

      Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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