Politico turns to training in wake of Kendra Marr plagiarism

December 22, 2011
Category: Uncategorized

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple managed to penetrate Politico’s wall of silence regarding the Kendra Marr plagiarism incident from back in October. (It was one of nine incidents that month.)

As I wrote at the time, one of the notable aspects of the incident was that the publication’s top editors — John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei — refused all media inquiries. They co-authored an editor’s note to reveal that Marr had plagiarized from several sources, and that she had resigned. (Actually, they did not use the”p” word, another notable aspect.)

Politico did a good job responding quickly when a writer for The New York Times raised concerns about one of Marr’s stories. As Wemple wrote Wednesday, “Politico handled the Kendra Marr situation the way it handles a hot news story: instantly and decisively.”

They scoured her previous work for other incidents. When they found them, they were honest with readers that “there had been an unacceptable violation of our journalistic standards … in ways which we cannot defend and will not tolerate.”

They also could have added, “and will not talk about any further.” Politico editors refused to go on the record with anyone in the press about the Marr incident. They battened down the hatches and declined requests from people like Wemple and Poynter’s Julie Moos. It was frustrating to see a publication that relentlessly pursues poltiicans and public officials for comment suddenly clam up and stonewall the press.

“If we aren’t willing to take the heat and answer questions when things are at their worst, how can we demand that of others?” I asked back in October.

Wemple’s latest post, published Wednesday, managed to uncover what appears to be an admirable training program that was implemented in the wake of the incident. This is good news. Training is, I believe, the best way to prevent something like this from happening again. I commend Politico for dedicating time and resources to this program. Wemple has many details about it, but here are two elements that caught my eye:

  • Attribution in the Internet age: a look at what synthesis/rewriting is acceptable and unacceptable; when attribution is needed and when it isn’t; what facts are in the public domain

… Politico has launched a mentoring program, too, pairing experienced reporters with up-and-comers. The mission of the program appears to be twofold: Extend the nurturing on reportorial methods beyond the confines of conference-room skull sessions and test the ability of staffers to keep a secret.

When you have a lot of young reporters in the newsroom, and when you’re asking them to file frequently and about a variety of topics and beats, this kind of training and support is essential. A refresher course in attribution is a great way to prevent failures of attribution. It also sends a clear message to staff about what’s expected and ethical. That also helps prevent problems.

I suppose you could almost give Politico editors credit for consistency: they refused to talk when Marr was caught plagiarizing, and they refused to talk even when they had a positive training program to highlight.

But I doubt they’d be wiling to offer that kind of credit to a politician who applied the same stonewalling policy — and that’s what I continue to find so frustrating about this entire episode.

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