Have newsrooms relaxed standards, sanctions for fabrication and plagiarism?
When the Chicago Sun-Times fired Paige Wiser for fabricating earlier this month, readers shared mixed reactions about whether the punishment was too harsh.
Wiser, who had been at the paper for 17 years, was let go after writing a “Glee Live!” concert review that included details about a song that was never performed and a song that she didn’t stay at the concert long enough to hear. After her column ran, Wiser admitted that she left the concert early because one of her kids, who was at the concert with her, started to get sick.
“Suspension, yes. Firing, no,” one reader commented in a Romenesko post about the incident. “This is a punishment wildly disproportionate to the crime.”
Another commented: “To keep someone on staff who admits making up facts for a story -- no matter how superficial the story is -- would make me wonder if accuracy was even a consideration. In my opinion, the paper had no choice but to fire her.”
In an informal and unscientific poll we conducted, 37 percent of readers said the firing was justified, while 41 percent said the Sun-Times overreacted and that a suspension would have been more appropriate for a longtime staffer.
The responses and reader comments renew attention to how news organizations handle plagiarism and fabrication cases -- and whether the standards have changed in recent years.
To get a better sense of this, I compiled a list of plagiarism and fabrication cases that shows the range of ways news organizations have responded when journalists such as Sari Horwitz, Maureen Dowd and Jayson Blair were caught plagiarizing. The responses range from firing reporters, to suspending them, to simply publishing a correction or note to readers.
When compiling the list, I found that many of the stories written about plagiarism and fabrication mention factors that news organizations may have considered when deciding how to respond. The factors include: the news organization's policy on fabrication/plagiarism, the severity of the offense, the reporter's tenure and track record at the organization, and any personal difficulties the reporter may have been dealing with at the time.
A Washington Post piece about Horwitz, for instance, said she had been helping her mother through difficult health issues around the time that she plagiarized. And a Romenesko post about Wiser quoted one of her colleagues as saying she was “under intense pressure, citing chronic headaches, a car accident in which she’d broken a finger, and an experience with vertigo while covering Oprah Winfrey’s May 17 Farewell Spectacular.” There were also several stories about Jayson Blair's struggle with bipolar disorder.
Some editors seem "more willing to overlook minor plagiarism"
Because we almost never know the full story behind personnel issues, we don't have enough data to say there are definite trends in sanctions. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that some newsrooms have relaxed their standards when it comes to plagiarism and fabrication.
Poynter’s Kelly McBride, who regularly gets phone calls from editors seeking advice on how to handle plagiarism/fabrication cases, said she found that more newsrooms started firing staffers for plagiarism following the Blair scandal. That seems to have changed once the economic crisis hit newsrooms.
“Some editors these days seem more willing to overlook minor plagiarism, because it almost always involves writers trying to work fast, either because they have additional duties or because they are trying to publish to ride a wave of interest,” said McBride, who has taken about a dozen related calls from editors throughout the past year.
“When I tell them that what they are looking at is indeed a case of plagiarism, they seem reticent to discipline. My sense is they feel like they are partially culpable for creating an environment where mistakes and plagiarism are more likely to happen.”
She went on tell me that if a news organization is looking for excuses to lay someone off and the person plagiarizes or fabricates, that might be the tipping point. But, she said, if editors have kept a person around during layoffs and cutbacks, they might feel a sense of remorse or loss at the idea of firing someone over a “minor case.”
No doubt, there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to defining a "minor" case and a "major" one.
McBride said that “Fabrication is almost always more egregious than plagiarism because it involves creating fiction in a place where only fact is permitted. Minor plagiarism involves lifting a sentence or a paragraph, which, in the age of copy and paste, is careless and reckless, but easy to do.”
Poynter’s Jill Geisler pointed out that when the offense is minor, it’s more likely that other factors influence the decision to sanction. But, she said via email, “if it is determined that the breach is egregious, that the company didn’t contribute to it, and that the employee made the choice to do it -- then a firing is justified. It shouldn’t matter whether the employee is junior or senior, or whether the person is a star player or barely known.”
Steps newsroom leaders can take to make more informed decisions
Geisler suggested that newsroom leaders should consider the following steps when dealing with plagiarism or fabrication:
- "In the face of a misdeed, focus on the problem first (the action) and its seriousness. Document it carefully. Don’t let public pressure or embarrassment deny someone due process.
- “Look inward: Identify any mitigating factors that could have contributed to the misdeed. Did the organization play a role in any way -- through unclear policies or inconsistent responses in identical cases? Did the organization’s poor planning, training, scheduling or communication play any role?
- “After vetting the problem, address the person. Did he or she do this knowingly? Did the person ask for advice from a supervisor before taking this action, or act independently? Did this person have other alternatives?”
McBride added that it always helps to talk with the reporter about how he or she could have handled the situation differently. In the Sun-Times case, for instance, Wiser could have included a line in her column about having to leave early.
Many factors affect plagiarism and fabrication cases, and not everyone is going to agree on the final outcome. But taking time to carefully vet the problem can lead to a more informed decision and help prevent the same problem from happening again.