NPR ombud: Editors 'are right' to give plagiarizing intern another chance

NPR | Reuters

What we have here ... is a cultural gap," Edward Schumacher-Matos writes about Ahmad Shafi, an NPR intern who got busted for plagiarism.

Shafi worked as a "translator, occasional reporter and all-round 'fixer'" for NPR in Kabul before moving to Washington, D.C., for an internship, Schumacher-Matos writes. Shafi borrowed some descriptions of an execution he'd witnessed from a 2001 piece by Jason Burke. After an NPR reader noticed the similarities, Shafi's editor Greg Myre confronted him. The intern "didn't see what the problem was," Schumacher-Matos writes.

According to the internal report, he told Myre, "Yeah, I just needed to jog my memory. I wasn't taking notes (at the execution). I took a couple of lines from his [Burke's] piece."

Shafi was following standard operating procedures in Afghan journalism, Schumacher-Matos writes: "Other experts in Afghanistan have confirmed to me that it is common practice among Afghan journalists and researchers to copy and paste material they think is accurate." Shafi's mentor Quil Lawrence tells him Shafi "did so well so quickly that we didn't check that he had the basics." 

Former NPR editor Jonathan Kern conducted an internal review but recommended against disciplining Shafi. Schumacher-Matos agrees and commends NPR for handling the whole incident quickly; it yanked the story and replaced it with an editor's note four hours after the original publication. Next up for the news org: figuring out whether pulling a story is the correct response.

In a column about NPR unpublishing Shafi's story, Reuters' Jack Shafer wrote that keeping up flawed work is "the only known way of turning a giant sash of shame into a tiny badge of honor."

Related: NPR unpublishes intern’s execution story after discovering parts were plagiarized

  • 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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