August 15, 2012

Editors often call us in a panic. A reader or another journalist has shown them credible evidence that one of their writers has plagiarized the work of others or, more rarely, suggested that sources, quotes or other information are fabricated.

The way an organization responds to plagiarism or fabrication can affect its relationship with its community, its staff, and its standing in the profession. The right response can help build or maintain trust. A weak response fuels distrust.

With that in mind, here’s a guide to handling an incident or plagiarism or fabrication.

Before an incident occurs

Review newsroom policy regarding attribution, plagiarism and fabrication. Does one exist? Is it current? Who manages it? If need be, bring it up to date by designating a person or newsroom committee to take ownership. As part of the policy, require that managers meet with team members quarterly to openly discuss standards, answer questions, and gather feedback on ways the policy might need to be amended, updated, or supported by training and communication. A good policy should address these questions:

  • How should writers attribute quotes or other material gathered from outside publications, including wire services, or other stories published by your own newsroom?
  • What is your newsroom standard for using press releases, video packages provided public relations agencies, and other marketing material?
  • How should journalists reveal the means by which they gathered information? For example, if an interview was conducted by email, on the telephone or in person, should that be noted?
  • Some stories required a repeated block of background text. What’s the best way to create, display and attribute that text?
  • How should editors respond when evidence of plagiarism surfaces?

Designate a person or committee (of no more than three people) to routinely refresh the policy.

When an accusation/incident is reported

  • It’s not hard to figure out if an initial allegation is credible. If the publication date preceded your own writer’s publication, and if there are strings of identical words (more than seven words), it merits a closer look.
  • Bring the writer and the editor who handled the copy in and tell them about the allegation. Ask the writer to gather all source material, including press releases, links, written notes and other articles used in researching the story.
  • In most cases, a writer should not publish any additional material until the initial review is complete. There may be exceptions for stories that can’t wait.
  • A senior editor should review the story in question, looking for identical sentences and phrases. There are degrees of plagiarism, from minor to major. The more similarities, the greater the offense.
  • When fabrication is suspected, the editor should call sources used for the story. If the reporter does not have contact information, databases should be used to try and track the sources down to determine if they indeed exist and said what is attributed to them.
  • Once the editor determines if plagiarism and/or fabrication occurred, the reporter and his immediate editor should be told.

When you’ve verified an incident

  • Present the evidence to the writer and ask for an explanation. Ask if it has ever happened before, and explain that previous work will be examined.
  • Either select a time period or randomly select stories or look at everything. Whenever possible, utilize plagiarism detection services to deliver an initial analysis of work, and to enable the examination to proceed quickly. However, material flagged by a plagiarism detection service must be examined individually.
  • When looking for possible fabrications, recruit a small team of editors to randomly contact suspect sources from the writer’s work, and to check out other information that could fit a pattern of fabrication.
  • While the investigation is ongoing, the reporter should not publish any new material. Many editors will suspend a writer with or without pay during this phase.
  • In a case of verified fabrication, suspension is the minimal response. Termination is a more fitting punishment. For a different view, SPJ’s Scott Leadingham argues that excommunication is no deterrent and rehabilitation can be an option. (News organizations have their own policies when it comes to human resources.)
  • As you verify instances of plagiarism or fabrication, announce the findings in an editor’s note, apologize to readers and anyone specifically affected; explain the suspension and ongoing examination of previous work.  Designate a single spokesperson from the masthead to handle inquiries.
  • Correct or append all digital versions of stories as problems surface. Keep your audience informed.
  • At the conclusion of the review of previous work, release the findings publicly online and in any other mediums where the offender’s work appeared. Place editor’s notes atop any online content that contained plagiarized or fabricated material. If original, offending content must be removed, place the editor’s note at the same URL where the work previously appeared. Do not simply disappear the content.
  • Investigate claims from other media and members of the public when they say they have found other incidents.
  • Meet with staff to communicate the policies regarding attribution, sourcing and ethics. Determine if the policies need to be updated or if this incident requires additional training or support for staff.
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