November 12, 2014

I teach a journalism ethics class at Duke University that focuses on issues of trust. I spend about half the semester exploring the pros and cons of anonymous sourcing, the other half on plagiarism and fabrication.

The plagiarism by Benny Johnson at BuzzFeed has not only prompted a new round of discussion about copying and pasting in the digital age, it involves an anonymous posse — two bloggers who call themselves @blippoblappo and @crushingbort. After BuzzFeed fired Johnson for 41 incidents of plagiarism, Blippo and Bort have been on a relentless crusade against columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, Blippo and Bort spoke with my class in two separate conversations. Smith spoke first by Skype; Blippo and Bort opted for a Google chat to protect their identities.



Smith was forthright about the firing of Johnson, saying it was clearly plagiarism. “Presenting someone else’s words as your own is such a basic form of dishonesty,” he said. He also said BuzzFeed should have been more forthcoming about the deletion of old posts (a fact uncovered by Gawker, which said there were roughly 4,000 that disappeared from BuzzFeed’s site).

“BuzzFeed, before I started, was more of a content lab … kind of curating the hot conversations from the web, using algorithms to find them,” Smith said. That resulted in “tons and tons of stuff that was in that era were lists of broken links and broken images and broken videos. And we kind of really sloppily said to editors, like ‘Hey we have all this old stuff. You can’t edit it anymore because we’ve changed our CMS, it’s a huge effort to fix it. … If there’s stuff you care about, we’ll save it. We’re gonna go ahead and get rid of everything else, because we don’t want to be serving pages that have broken links.’ ”

The mistake, Smith said, was “instead of thinking, ‘Won’t it be weird for readers when they pull up a page, and it vanished?’ we thought like ‘Oh, this is a convenient way to deal with all these old things,’ which was incredibly untransparent, and not very well thought through. Gawker noticed, and wrote a good story about it, and that’s good. I’m all for that. That’s how you learn.”

Smith told the class that BuzzFeed was in the process of writing an ethics manual. “As we’ve grown, and now that we have 250 editorial staffers, sometimes it’s helpful to have specific rules,” he said.

The policy “isn’t like a set of bright-line rules, because I think those can be very misleading, and if you have clear bright lines without real principles, people find ways to game them. But to have a sense of what’s appropriate around sourcing, to define plagiarism really clearly because we had one guy who seems not to have really understood that. Things like that.”

When I pressed for details, he declined to say much about manual, saying that “we’re still working on it. We want to kick it around internally a little bit more.”

@blippoblappo's icon

@blippoblappo’s icon

After Smith came our Google chat with the anonymous bloggers, an unusual way to talk with guest speakers. Blippo’s avatar was a fish swallowing a pill; Bort, who was going by the name Horton Atonto, had an avatar of a mean-looking robot. Here’s a lightly edited transcript. I’ve cleaned up typos and reordered a few responses when we talked over each other.

Hey Blippo and, uh, Horton? Thought we were getting Bort. Man, these pseudonyms throw me off.

Bort: Apologies!

Thanks for doing this. Here with me today are 30 students in my journalism ethics class. How about we start with you guys – gals? – telling us what you can about yourselves and why you’ve been spending so much time on this. It’s clear this takes a lot of research!

Blippo: I’ll take this one. So you’ve all read up on the BuzzFeed Benny saga.

In fact, our guest speaker last hour was Ben Smith.

Bort: Oh boy.

Blippo: That’s incredible…So, we’d been reading Benny’s “journalism” for a while. And, at some point, he started ridiculing another outlet for “plagiarizing” one of his posts on H.W. Bush’s socks. We thought it would be funny if Benny had ever plagiarized, because – well, boy, wouldn’t that be hubris if a serial plagiarist was calling out people for plagiarism? So over a big bowl of Chinese takeout I just started entering phrases from his articles into Google, and voila.

Good journalistic instincts. But you have said you’re not journalists, right?

Bort: We’re not, which is the funny thing about it. They were readily available on Google.

Blippo: It doesn’t take J-school education to read an article and know that BuzzFeed Benny doesn’t have offhand knowledge about North Korea’s cell phone manufacturing industry.

Why remain anonymous?

Bort: We’ve always said that we’re not the focus of the story, outside of a human interest.

Well, at least you’re confirming you are human.

Blippo: True – we are not, in fact, a drug-taking fish and a robot.

Bort: Our work is available to the public and independently verifiable. The reaction we’ve seen from some reporters is that absent our identities, someone’s plagiarism somehow doesn’t count or matter.

Do you feel like you are making yourselves a part of the story by remaining anonymous? Sort of like Batman?

Blippo: Exactly. At this point, our anonymity is a challenge to reporters – when you have a prima facie case of plagiarism, will you let the fact that it comes from the depths of Twitter prevent you from doing the right thing and calling it out?

Bort: I think for some reporters it’s easier to ask who we are then to step on some very big toes in the industry.

The reaction by Slate Group Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg was particularly strong against you. What do you make of that? (He said their “bullying vigilantism is pure J. Edgar Hoover”)

Blippo: I made a name tag out of it. “J. Edgar Hoover” is about the best honorific one can get.

Weisberg’s point — shared to some extent by some in our class — was that you are too strict in your definition of plagiarism.

Bort: Weisberg is a former classmate of Zakaria’s and it seems as if he has some pretty strong personal feelings about it, but as was pointed out early on by Elon Green he was once very unforgiving towards plagiarism when it concerned his own work.

Blippo: Mmm, now that point about being “too strict” is an important one for us to address. Look, I think if you read up on “patch writing” and other “low-level” plagiarism charges, it kind of confuses the idea of why plagiarism is so bad. Plagiarism is theft — it’s stealing someone else’s hard work, even if that hard work is merely summarizing a report. How hard is it to use quotations and cite properly? All we’re asking is for a very, very baseline level of attribution — “Hey, I read this fact in Bloomberg.”

Bort: We were alerted to some quotes Zakaria gave in 2012 concerning his first scandal and he said he didn’t think it was important to cite quotes others had gotten because it would “interrupt the flow for the reader” and because his book wasn’t an “academic work.” That ends up giving readers the idea that Zakaria did the work here, or that somehow giving credit is something best left in medical journals and the like.

Blippo: But if you still don’t agree with all of our examples — with regards to Zakaria — you have to look at the broader picture — out of the dozens and dozens of examples, does it add up to someone with a serious pattern of misattribution? To wit – this isn’t a case of someone having a good-faith effort at attribution.

The consensus here in the class is that there are definitely some instances of Zakaria lifting things word for word. But several students asked if you hurt your case by adding examples that are not so solid.

Blippo: If I had to do it again, I would have spent 3 months researching all of Zakaria’s work and then released the strongest examples all at once, alongside the less-obvious ones. But we’re not professional journalists – we’re two people who do this in our free time. The real question shouldn’t be, “Why didn’t these two random Twitter people do a better job policing Zakaria.” It should be, “Why didn’t an editor catch ANY of these examples ever?”

Bort: Even we differed on which ones were slam dunks and which ones were so-so, but the examples that weren’t as convincing as others shouldn’t mitigate the biggest offenses.

Blippo: Exactly. And even the “so-so” cases should have sent a flag up for editors. At the very least.

Bort: If Zakaria stole two Ferraris and five tricycles, he wouldn’t get easier charges on account of the latter.

Blippo: Hahaha nice.

Okay, good point. How much do you think editors are responsible to catch mistakes and plagiarism?

Blippo: We can’t expect editors to spend hours and hours doing what we do to every article that comes across their desk. We know how time consuming it is, and considering how few resources editors have, it’s simply not a reasonable request. So what we need is a journalism that gets the incentives correct through strong collective consequences for those who DO plagiarize. For example, if Zakaria can get away with impunity, what will make the next Zakaria any more likely to not lift improperly? If editors want to save themselves hassle in the future, they should enforce tough standards to bad actors now.

Bort: I think editors inherently have some responsibility when it comes to catching mistakes, like when FZ got annual trade between the US and Mexico wrong because he was lifting from a year-old article. Or confirming that interviews actually took place with the sources being quoted.

It seems that the reporters who cover the media haven’t been doing much original reporting on this; they are relying on you. What do you make of that?

Blippo: It’s frustrating.

Bort: They’re playing it safe.

Blippo: This ties back into the earlier comment about us presenting “so-so” examples: we wouldn’t have to be throwing the sink at Zakaria if a real journalist was picking up the slack here. That being said, hat tip to Dylan Byers and the folks at Poynter (who have been covering it).

Today’s post on the changes in Zakaria’s Wikipedia page was smart journalism. But I wondered if there was enough evidence to say it was “apparently Zakaria.”

Blippo: A few things. First, who else on earth besides a woman’s son would fix a misspelling of their mother’s name on a Wikipedia entry?

Bort: That was really the clincher. Fareed Zakaria hasn’t had very many defenders who didn’t employ him.

Blippo: I think we really tried to hedge here by not saying “it was Zakaria.” But considering how few reporters are aggressively covering this story, I think it merits a fun, push-the-envelope story. Again, the evidence is there for people to judge themselves. It’s not like we’re relying on sources that can’t be independently verified.

Yes, that one was fun. One last question: Where do you go from here? What is your goal?

Blippo Bort will give an answer here. But I would love to know what your class thinks we should do.

Bort: We started this for fun and it ended up becoming way bigger than we thought. One of the funnier things we’ve noticed is that we’ve mentioned several times that we’ve found other instances (that) could kindly be called questionable attribution, yet no reporters have pushed for more information. We get the impression that people are afraid their outlet is next.

Blippo: Yeah, we’ve literally teased our other stories to no end and no one has reached out.

Okay, I’ll ask: What other outlets? Which writers?

Blippo: Walked into that one. Uh…wait, what were those interesting ideas from the class?

Bort: We’re deciding at the moment whether or not to send that information to the outlet in question. Because we’re curious to find out what happens if there’s no public calling out.

(Now responding to Blippo’s question about what the students think they should do next) Some interesting ideas from the class: 1. Keep going as the anonymous posse of plagiarism; 2. Write your own interpretation of plagiarism; 3. Broaden Our Bad Media to crowdsourcing; 4. Expand to other ethical areas such as anon. sources.

Bort: I like those ideas, particularly the use of anonymous sources

Blippo: Yeah, the anonymous sources one is really compelling

Thanks for doing this — even though you ducked the question about other news outlets!

Bort: We want to make sure (the evidence) is all in order!

Blippo: We’re really in the 22nd century now, huh. And yeah, thanks for having us. … Feel free to tweet at us, students, we will make fun of your avi’s.

Hard to beat a fish eating a pill, though.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University.

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Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and the founder of PolitiFact. The fact-checking site…
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