February 7, 2012

In the wake of a second incident of plagiarism in less than three months, the editorial leadership at the Journal Register Company’s Connecticut papers looked for a way to send a message about the unacceptability of theft and to reinforce the ethics of linking and attribution.

The first incident occurred in October, and at the time the company’s director of community engagement, Steve Buttry, published two blog posts about attribution and plagiarism to communicate the proper standards. (Disclosure: Buttry and I delivered a paid training session together for Georgetown University, and I’ve been an unpaid speaker for other classes of his.)

So when another incident occurred last month, the question was what to do next?

Buttry and JRC’s group editor for its Connecticut papers, Matt DeRienzo, decided on something a little unorthodox: a quiz.

Buttry said in an email that a quiz made sense because it “would have everyone on record as understanding how to attribute. It would identify issues on which we needed to educate the staff. It also would update understanding on some grayer areas of attribution that fall short of plagiarism.”

He said those gray areas include not linking to competitors, or using vague attribution language such as “a local blogger,” rather than being explicit about where the information originated.

“So an intended (and achieved) result of the quiz is to take the newsroom discussion beyond what constitutes plagiarism (everyone did understand that) to turn it into a positive conversation about what constitutes good attribution and linking,” Buttry said.

There was another benefit to the quiz, according to Buttry: It didn’t require coordinating schedules to get everyone in a room for a workshop or staff meeting. People could complete it on their computers, and it forced them to take action rather than sit and listen.

“When you have a staff meeting, there’s always someone who can’t make it,” he said. “And you’re never sure how well people are listening.”

The five-question quiz was built in Google Docs and circulated among the 113 newsroom employees at the JRC Connecticut papers. In the end, 100 percent of people completed the quiz.

Here’s one question:

It’s OK to use the passage verbatim because it’s just a blog, and not a recognized news organization.

If you reword slightly, it’s OK to use the passage.

Use the passage verbatim, attributing it to “a blog.”

Attribute to the blog by name and link to the blog, whether you quote or paraphrase. Use quotation marks if you are using the blog’s exact words.

Use the passage verbatim, linking but not mentioning the blog.

DeRienzo said the quiz results demonstrated newsroom employees have a good base of knowledge about proper attribution, and what constitutes plagiarism.

“The good news is that we got 100 percent participation, and we had very, very few ‘wrong’ responses, and those all centered around the mixed messages over … past policy [that was] either formal or implied that we should not mention competitors or link to them,” wrote DeRienzo when reporting the results in an email to his colleagues.

The quiz was actually part of a two-pronged approach. Employees that scored perfectly could move on. Those that got at least one answer wrong are required to participate in upcoming training sessions about attribution and plagiarism. The quiz helped identify the employees that require additional training.

The quiz also included a section at the end where respondents could add a statement or question. DeRienzo collected these and responded to each one personally. Here’s a sample reply to one person:

You asked why we were hiring journalists who do not understand the obvious. In both of the recent cases, the reporters involved had been on the job 5-6 years. I’ve dealt with other cases where reporters with 20-plus years’ experience plagiarized. So it’s not as simple as “it’s a new reporter” or we didn’t screen well. Maybe we should be giving that quiz when we hire. What do you think? Still won’t screen for character issues, but could help.

You said, “A good reporter will get their own information, quotes and sources – even if a competitor has it first.” Yes, agree, but not as simple as that. With any story we write, and especially huge stories, you are going to see more and more independent sources of information out there, and more competition. You might be better than all of them at reporting, but you can only be in one place at the same time and only have so many hours in the day. Others will have angles and information you don’t have or can’t get. To deprive your readers from that information out of a stubborn illusion that you are the only information source or only definitive one is silly. That’s why we need to talk about attribution and linking.

And the best policy is to be as generous and specific as possible in crediting other information sources, and to link every single time.

You also said, “Isn’t this a management issue, too? Shouldn’t editors of all shapes and sizes be fact-checking, or has that fallen wayside?”

Yes, absolutely, and you’ll notice that the quiz was required of every employee. The key question that editors should be asking reporters is, “How do we know this?”

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
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