Here’s a rare one: a journalist at the Toronto Star plagiarized an article that was published in … the Toronto Star.
And the rarities kept coming: after the plagiarism was revealed in a note on the offending piece, the guilty journalist took to his personal blog to fully confess and explain how it happened.
You rarely see someone plagiarize from the publication they’re writing for. And, unfortunately, you rarely see a journalist guilty of plagiarism own up to the offense completely in a personal account.
As I’ve written before, when it comes to plagiarism, the initial reaction within newsrooms is to batten down the hatches and reveal little information. You don’t get many public confessions. The offending party — not to mention newsroom leaders — often refuses to be interviewed. They do, however, often speak to the publication’s public editor/ombudsman, as was the case here as well.
(Disclosure: I was previously a columnist for the Star, but as far as I know I never worked with any of those involved in this incident. I’ve also had discussions with Star editors on behalf of Spundge, where I work, but the two organizations are not currently engaged in any work together.)
Marc Ellison was a summer intern at the Star when the offense occurred. A city editor at the Star confronted him about the similarities of his piece and one by another Star journalist, Daniel Dale. In that private moment, Ellison confessed. He also confessed publicly in his comments for a column by the paper’s public editor. And then he did it again on his own blog, in his own words in a post titled “Professional harikiri”. (Certainly, it must be said, it would have been better if Ellison had confessed his guilt without having been busted.)
Ellison’s summer internship had already ended as planned, English writes. The paper found “no other problems” in his other reported work.
In his blog post, Ellison wrote about how he felt once he was exposed:
Anger at the attention drawn to my indiscretion.
Shame at this public humiliation. I felt like burying my head in the hand, and I thought about giving up a career I’d only just begun, a career I love so much.
Someone at the Star – not the Public Editor – told me this week that what I did was stupid, and has caused a gash in my CV that will take a long time to heal.
True. This will stick to him. The tendency for anyone in this situation is to try to minimize the harm, which I think is one reason why plagiarists often refuse to talk. They want to make it go away. Silence seems a natural way to help the issue die quickly. Or, if they do choose to speak, it’s to deflect blame by offering up excuses.
Ellison avoids both:
But frankly, I can’t make excuses for the inexcusable. No matter how much pressure there is in a newsroom, no matter how tired you may be, there’s no justifying plagiarism.
If the goal is to find a way back, to repair the damage and remain in the profession, then silence and weak excuses are the worst strategy. The only way to repair dishonesty is with completely honesty and transparency. Ellison writes:
But instead of giving up, I’ve decided to take the harder path, to take this knock fully on the chin, hold up my hand, admit my mistake, and to slowly try to regain people’s trust and to become a better journalist.
Confession can bring relief, and can set the foundations for a new beginning.
So let the rebuilding begin with this confession: I plagiarized.
Ellison’s only way back is to start by being fully transparent about his failings, to be honest with himself and others about what he did. If he tries to minimize the act, to hide from the moment, he becomes even less worthy of trust and redemption.
His confession is no guarantee of a future in journalism, though there are of course many other one-time plagiarists who still have their bylines.
But after being busted for a journalistic sin, Ellison stood up to offer a full accounting and confession. That act makes it more likely he’ll find forgiveness.
It also once again highlights how frustratingly rare it is to see others take the same path in the wake of plagiarism.