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Plagiarism plagues journalism field

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National examples reflect local difficulties with fabricating stories

Sometimes, though, they make the news.

Stephen Glass, a former reporter and editor at The New Republic magazine, is one such case. Glass wrote for the magazine during the mid-1990s and was fired after editors discovered elements in several of his stories were fabricated. “Shattered Glass,” a movie documenting Glass’ rise and fall, was released in theaters last week.

Because truthfulness is regarded as one of the most important ethical backbones of journalism, fabrication or invention and plagiarism are assigned cardinal sin status in the profession.

“If the public doesn’t believe what it’s getting from the news media, there’s not much point to the news business,” said Philip Seib, Nieman Chair and journalism professor. “I think the whole relationship between the news media and the public is based on the idea that the public can trust the news product and can trust journalists to be operating in good faith, and if either or both of those pillars of trust are damaged, the whole relationship is damaged.”

Typically, reporters caught plagiarizing materials or fabricating information lose their jobs, unless they resign first. Jayson Blair, the now-notorious New York Times reporter who plagiarized and invented information in several of his stories, resigned after the shocking discovery was made, as did two editors above him.

If plagiarism and fabrication are such reputable offenses in the journalism business, then why do some reporters continue to take the risk of losing their careers — and better yet, how do they get away with it?

The answer, according to Erik Ugland, assistant professor of broadcast and electronic communication, who also teaches media law, is that it is nearly impossible to prevent a reporter from doing so. In terms of accountability, Ugland likened the news business to a trucking company.

“There’s only so much a trucking company can do to prevent its employees from veering into oncoming traffic,” he said. “In a news organization, there’s only so much an editor can do to prevent his or her employees from doing things that are radical departures from the organization’s ethical standards.

“People should not fool themselves into thinking that editors or publishers can completely prevent these things from happening.”

Seib agrees.

“When you think about it, it’s hard to fault an editor for not catching it,” Seib said. “Unless journalists police themselves and don’t do it, it’s hard to catch.”

But some question the extent to which such incidents strain the public’s trust of the news media.

“I don’t know if journalists can hurt their credibility much more with the public,” said American Journalism Review managing editor Lori Robertson, who has written about plagiarism in the media. “I don’t think they think the profession (of journalism) is all that ethical.”

However, according to Seib, the public’s continual patronage of news media outlets indicates that the public does trust the media.

“They must trust them, because they buy the product,” he said. “If they don’t trust the news media, why would they do all that? There’s a certain level of trust implied in that.”

Most critical to maintaining a news organization’s credibility when plagiarism or fabrication is committed, Ugland said, is handling it in an open and upfront manner with the public.

“Any time a news organization disseminates material that has been plagiarized, they are obligated at a minimum to prominently correct their error and apologize to their audience,” he said.

Any response to a breach in trust by a news organization “has to be as serious as the breach itself,” said Keith Woods, who directs reporting, writing and editing programs at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida.

“It’s big news, so you’ve got to let (the public) know in a big way,” Woods said. Letting the public know “in a big way” includes publishing an admission of the violation outlining what happened and what the news outlet is doing to rectify the incident.

The New York Times ran a 7,023-word editor’s note detailing the evidence where Blair had taken material lacking attribution and fabricated information in his stories.

On Oct. 23 The Marquette Tribune ran a front-page message notifying readers that a sports columnist had been suspended for using lifted information in a column. The message stated the date when the editor’s column appeared and the source of the plagiarized information.

At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, former fashion reporter Catherine Fitzpatrick was suspended without pay in June after her editors were notified of problematic attribution in a story she wrote on bikinis, according to an article written by Peter Robertson in Milwaukee Magazine’s October 2003 issue. An editor’s note was printed in the June 26 edition of the Journal Sentinel that said: “An article headlined ‘How teenie is today’s bikini?’ on the cover of the Cue section June 10 failed to meet Journal Sentinel standards for correctly attributing or quoting the writing of others.” The note also mentioned Fitzpatrick by name. A correction that ran in August — after Fitzpatrick had left — did not mention her by name, though, according to Robertson’s article.

In the months following, controversy over the Journal Sentinel’s handling of Fitzpatrick arose. According to Robertson’s article, editors found attribution problems in other Fitzpatrick articles. Instead of firing Fitzpatrick, editors offered a confidential settlement for her to leave the paper quietly after she hired a lawyer, the article also said.

Robertson told the Tribune the later correction did point out other stories in which Fitzpatrick had not attributed information correctly. Robertson said editors “could say very little” about Fitzpatrick because of the confidential settlement.

When contacted by the Tribune regarding whether Fitzpatrick was fired or quit her position, Journal Sentinel editor Martin Kaiser only said “she’s no longer at the paper.”

Diane Bacha, assistant managing editor for features/entertainment/news info center at the Journal Sentinel, said Fitzpatrick’s departure was a personnel matter that she could not discuss.

Ugland said depending upon how a news organization chooses to handle such situations, they can have a “cleansing effect and reenergize the organization.”

“The potential effects they have is to get news organizations talking again about their internal operations,” Ugland said. He points to “extraordinary steps” taken by The New York Times after Blair resigned, which included hiring a public editor and a standards editor.

Ethical discussion is one practice lacking from most news organizations, Woods said.

“I don’t think it’s understood around many newsrooms across the country,” he said. “We don’t have these rules down in most newsrooms either.”

Woods said such rules are vital to determining how to handle each case involving plagiarism or fabrication.

“We need to understand what we mean when we say plagiarism,” he said. “Knowingly representing someone else’s work as your own is plagiarism. You have to clarify the lines between fair usage and plagiarism.”

Woods said the correct use of information in stories available on wire services can be confusing to some who believe attribution is unnecessary, since a few are required to use wire services.

“We trade on one proposition in journalism, and that is you can believe what we say,” Wood said. “If you compromise that notion, you’re no better than the National Enquirer.”

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