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Bulletin: Fall 2011, Volume 17, Number 1

Attribution Controversies Prompt Reexamination of What Constitutes Journalistic Plagiarism

Arlington, Va.-based political journalism website Politico found itself at the center of an ethics scandal in October 2011 when it was revealed that Kendra Marr, a Politico reporter for two years, plagiarized portions of at least seven news stories throughout 2011. A month later, the Poynter Institute accused its most famous blogger, Jim Romenesko, of a technical violation of its rules by failing to use quotation marks in his daily aggregation of news stories, prompting Romenesko’s resignation.  The incidents have prompted reevaluation of the nature of plagiarism in the electronic age.

Politico Investigation Reveals Stories Lifted Without Attribution

On Oct. 13, 2011, Politico announced the resignation of reporter Kendra Marr through an editor’s note written by its Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris and Executive Editor Jim VandeHei. The decision came a day after an email from Susan Stellin, a freelance reporter for The New York Times, alerted Politico’s editing staff to similarities between two news stories. An initial comparison of Marr’s October 10 piece “TSA, Not Flying High Fiscally, Looks for Cash” alongside Stellin’s September 26 piece “Paying for Security” revealed enough similarities in phrasing and reporting to warrant a full investigation by Politico’s editorial staff. Altogether, seven instances of similar plagiarism were named in the editors’ note, with Marr typically rewriting portions of published news articles through rephrasing and inclusion of her own original reporting alongside that of the existing article. The investigation revealed reporting in which, according to the editor’s note, “specific turns of phrases or passages … bore close resemblance to work published elsewhere. Others involved similarities in the way stories were organized to present their findings.” The articles drew from a range of sources without proper attribution, including reporting from the Washington, D.C.-based newspaper The Hill, the Associated Press (AP), and the Scripps-Howard News Service, the note said. Six of the seven instances appeared between September 19 and October 10, starting immediately after Marr’s September 19 transition from working as a national political reporter to the national transportation beat for Politico Pro, a paid service that produces content aimed at political and policy professionals. The editor’s note can be found online at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1011/65940.html.

The editor’s note was careful to distinguish the conduct at issue from outright fabrication, stating that “None of these examples represented invention of quotes, scenes, or other material.” Nonetheless, the editors affirmed that a violation of the publication’s journalistic standards, which call for conspicuous citation to reporting or ideas first produced by others, had occurred. “Material published in our pages borrowed from the work of others, without attribution, in ways which we cannot defend, and will not tolerate,” the editor’s note said.  In response to the incident, Politico edited the stories to give Marr’s sources proper attribution, including a disclaimer that “An earlier version of this story drew extensively on reporting [the affected news source] without proper attribution. Politico regrets the omission.” Nowhere in the editor’s note or the edited stories did Politico refer to Marr’s behavior as acts of plagiarism, opting for descriptors such as “improper borrowing” and “inadequate attribution” amid apologies to journalistic colleagues and competitors.

News media commenters were much less hesitant to append the plagiarism label to Marr’s work, and the incident sparked renewed discussion of what constitutes plagiarism in the age of electronic media. Speculating that the behavior may have be symptomatic of a high-pressure work atmosphere at Politico, Erik Wemple, who blogs about the media for the Washington Post, wrote that Politico Pro’s promise of “no boring stories telling you things you already know” effectively works against attribution. Much more uncompromising was Reuters’ Jack Shafer, who opined that such excuses are confessions that inculpate rather than exonerate the author. “By having no sources of his own and failing to point to the source he stole from, [the plagiarist] breaks the ‘chain of evidence’ that allows readers to contest or verify facts … he produces worthless copy that wastes the time of his readers,” Shafer wrote in an October 14 blog post responding to the incident titled “How to Think About Plagiarism.”  However, Shafer distinguished plagiarists from aggregators who cite of the sources they summarize and provide a service tailored to an online format. “[A]ggregators are serving ‘a huge, previously ignored readership out there [which] wants its new hot, quick, and tight,’” an audience coveted by established media outlets who find themselves “playing aggregation catch-up,” Shafer wrote, suggesting that Marr’s writing might have been acceptable with proper attribution. 

Responding directly to Shafer’s indictment, Felix Salmon, a blogging editor for Reuters, suggested in an October 18 post to the Columbia Journalism Review’s (CJR) business press blog The Audit that Marr’s conduct was not necessarily the type of plagiarism seen in the era of print news, but a permutation unique to the continuous news era that he dubs “link-phobia.” “These days, there’s a lot of pressure, at places like [The New York Times’ financial and business news blog] Dealbook and Politico, to match stories quickly — so quickly that it’s significantly easier to just copy-and-paste your rival’s material than it is to craft your own story when you’re not much of an expert in the first place,” Salmon wrote. Such behavior, Salmon suggests, stems from a lingering reluctance to embrace linking and aggregation in newsrooms.

Writing for Chicago Magazine’s staff blog The 312, Whet Moser wrote in an October 14 post that blogging was the “obvious solution” if Marr wanted to use portions of Susan Stellin’s reporting. Although the “traditional model of news articles” substantially limits the use of others’ reporting in one’s own work, Moser posited that referring to the original article with full attribution and advancing its reporting with original research was a writing format that presents “a simple, ethical solution[.]” However, although Moser recommended building upon others’ previous work as “the basis of most other forms of nonfiction, particularly academic work …,” he acknowledged that it may not be appropriate for news consumers, who remain unfamiliar with the original source material.

The incident follows several other high-profile instances of plagiarism in 2011, including The Washington Post’s three-month suspension of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sari Horwitz for copying substantial portions of stories from The Arizona Republic “in whole or in part” without attribution. Rather than attempt to rewrite the reporting as Marr had, Horwitz copied and pasted material from the Republic directly without attribution on two separate occasions in March during her coverage of the investigation of accused Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner. London’s The Independent also became a victim of plagiarism in September, after a reader discovered that a quote in a story written by George Orwell Prize-winning journalist Johann Hari was directly copied and pasted from a book. After he initially denied it, additional incidents were uncovered and Hari took a four month unpaid leave.

Steve Myers of the journalism think tank The Poynter Institute responded to these incidents in an October 14 column, asserting that outright fabrication of facts and theft of material should not be the baseline plagiarism standard. Instead, he suggested that such behavior represents a worst-case scenario on a continuum of wrongs. “Plagiarism runs so contrary to what journalists value, it makes sense for colleagues to try to understand why someone would do it,” he wrote. “We should pause, however, before saying that someone didn’t plagiarize maliciously. … Just because someone doesn’t aim to malign doesn’t make his actions benign.” Like others who commented on the incident, he proposed attribution as a solution to some types of plagiarism.

Amid Accusations of Improper Attribution, Jim Romenesko Resigns From Poynter

On Nov. 10, 2011, Jim Romenesko resigned from The Poynter Institute following accusations of improper quote attribution, bringing an abrupt end to his 12-year tenure running the think tank’s media aggregation blog. Romenesko’s daily blog on Poynter.org operated as a daily aggregation of articles relating to news media and journalism issues, with Romenesko providing a short summary of a story’s salient details and a link to the source material.

His resignation followed accusations in an article written by Poynter Online’s Director Julie Moos, who claimed Romenesko’s posts too often included an author’s verbatim language without the use of quotation marks. Moos was tipped off to the perceived infractions, which she characterized as a constituting a “pattern of incomplete attribution,” by Erika Fry, an assistant editor at CJR who was preparing a story about the topic. Preempting Fry’s story exposing the supposed defects, Moos published her criticisms on November 10 and precipitated a firestorm of reactions. Moos wrote that Romenesko’s practices gave the impression that the writing consisted of his thoughts and ideas. Moos saw this as a serious infringement of Poynter’s stringent sourcing guidelines, which mandate use of quotation marks when using verbatim language. Stating her intent to further investigate other Poynter writers and raising the question of whether aggregation pieces should be subject to the same attribution standards as normal news reports, Moos announced that in the future, Romenesko’s posts would be edited prior to their publication, rather than retroactively as they had been. Moos’s article, “Questions Over Romenesko’s Attributions Spur Changes in Writing, Editing” can be found at  http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/152802/questions-over-romeneskos-attributions-spur-changes-in-writing-editing/.

Romenesko resigned the day after Moos published her criticisms, and the blog, simply titled Romenesko upon its purchase by Poynter in 1999, was reintroduced on Poynter’s website as The MediaWire on November 13 to be run by a cadre of Poynter reporters. The Romenesko blog was a primary source of traffic to the Poynter site, and often used as a way for journalists to ensure exposure of their work to a broader audience. Romenesko was only weeks from retiring from aggregation blogging to pursue reporting. In an email to The New York Times on the day of his resignation, Romenesko said that he had hoped to finish out his final weeks without incident, writing that “[t]his really did throw me for a loop.”

Other journalism publications evidently felt the same way, with many comments swiftly and harshly criticizing Poynter’s rigid adherence to its attribution standards. Contending that Romenesko “doesn’t deserve to be treated this way,” Rem Rieder wrote for American Journalism Review on November 14 that Poynter was effectively “hanging its groundbreaking media blogger/aggregator out to dry.” Rieder conceded that Romenesko should have been more scrupulous about his use of quotation marks, but wrote that “there’s no real sin here” because of Romenesko’s conscientious citation and linking practices. Felix Salmon, a blogging editor for Reuters,  exalted Romenesko as “a KING of the blogosphere,” in a post on a personal blog on November 11,writing that “[i]f your guidelines go against what Jim is doing, then there might well be something wrong with your guidelines.” David Carr of The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog on November 11 described Moos’ reaction as “an answer in search of a problem,” suggesting the decision was an unnecessary response to a minor concern.

In his inaugural blog post to jimromenesko.com on November 18, titled “How I Ended Up Leaving Poynter,” Romenesko framed his departure as a gradual decision hastened by CJR’s impending attribution story and Moos’ preemptive response. As he described it, in April 2011, Poynter had rebranded Romenesko’s blog as “Romenesko+,” which featured a modified format of increasingly lengthy aggregation posts from other Poynter contributors and aimed to bringing more traffic back to Poynter’s site. After announcing his intention to leave Poynter and begin running a personal blog, Romenesko signed a one-year contract that would allow him to cross-post items to Poynter and his own site. Romenesko said he originally speculated that Moos’ story responding to CJR’s investigation might have been intended to scare Poynter’s advertisers away from his new venture. However, he acknowledged that Moos had held other staffers to similar attribution standards in years past. “I believe my initial suspicion about Julie’s actions — that she was trying to keep Poynter’s advertisers off my site — was wrong. … Julie, I think, is the chief of Poynter’s Attribution Police.” He concluded by writing that four days after CJR published their planned story about his blog’s attribution practices, he declined an invitation from CJR to return to aggregating for an upcoming website about business journalism education.

CJR, however, continued to assert the need for attribution, with Justin Peters writing on CJR’s Behind the News media blog on November 11 that “[i]t’s rare that you see so many people rising to declare their support for sloppy attribution practices. Arguing that no casual browser of Poynter’s website would know that Romenesko’s language was not his own, Peters drew attention to the irony of “critici[zing] a journalism ethics institute for caring too much.” Meanwhile, Erika Fry, who had initially brought the attribution issue to Moos’ attention, wrote in a November 11 post on the Behind the News Blog titled “The Romenesko Saga” that the blog began indulging in “over-aggregation” as its posts got longer following its rebranding as Romenesko+ in April. “[M]y interpretation matches that of Moos, who described over-aggregation as when an aggregated post contains too much … substantive work of the original source, such that it removes any incentive for the reader to visit the original story,” Fry wrote. Fry drew particular attention to the verbatim reproduction of an entire 700-word CJR story in an October Romenesko blog post, writing that in such instances the term over-attribution no longer even applies. Fry’s post can be found at http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_romenesko_saga.php.

The lasting impact on attribution practices in online media remains to be seen, but the incident has drawn attention to the possibility of differing standards depending on the format of a piece of journalism, and underline Steve Myers’ assertions in response to the Kendra Marr incident that conceptions of what constitutes plagiarism can span a wide spectrum. Fry noted in her response to Poynter’s decision that the industry-wide conversation over standards and best practices in aggregation was one that needed to happen. “Poynter — an institute that regularly weighs in on these matters — needs to honestly consider its own practices while advocating for the rest of the community,” she wrote.

Cavalier Daily Faces Controversy Over Plagiarism

The University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily found itself at the center of an ethics scandal in fall 2011 after alerting its readers to the presence of plagiarism in a pending news article, and the subsequent discovery of at least three past instances of plagiarism by the same writer. In an editorial titled “Taking Action,” published on September 12, the paper’s managing board wrote that the offending behavior consisted of frequent copying of content from sources ranging from Wikipedia to major news outlets without proper attribution. In response, the Cavalier followed its established protocol of permanently removing the writer from the staff and taking down the infringing content from its website. The Cavalier also reported the incident to the school’s Honor Committee, a student-run group that ensures compliance with the University of Virginia Honor System’s blanket prohibition on lying, cheating, and stealing. In contrast to commercial newspapers’ practice of identifying plagiarists and preserving their articles, the Cavalier concealed the name of the alleged plagiarist after reporting to the Honor Committee, which keeps secret offenders’ identities. The Cavalier editorial disclosing the plagiarism can be found at http://www.cavalierdaily.com/2011/09/12/taking-action/.

On September 14, the chair of the Honor Committee filed charges against the paper’s editorial board with the University Judiciary Committee (UCJ), a separate student-run Committee that hears cases involving violations of the University of Virginia’s Standards of Student Conduct, an enumerated list of prohibitions ranging from physical assault to disorderly conduct. The complaint alleged that disclosure of the investigation in the Cavalier’s September 12 editorial breached the pending case’s confidentiality in violation of Standard 11 of the University’s Standards of Conduct, which prohibit “intentional, reckless, or negligent conduct which obstructs the operations of the Honor or Judiciary Committee, or conduct that violates their rules of confidentiality.” The newspaper wrote in a September 22 editorial, “A Higher Standard,” that it was “bound by its responsibility to readers” to fully disclose the incident and the pending case against its editorial board, even though doing so put it at the risk of further alleged university honor code violations. The Honor Committee chair dropped charges against four members of the editorial board, leaving the Cavalier’s Editor-in-Chief Jason Ally as the sole defendant. No comment on the change was provided, but in the September 27 Cavalier editorial “McKenzie Drops Four UJC Charges,” the newspaper’s Managing Editor Andrew Seidman suggested the decision was made to preserve the Honor Committee’s reputation.

Commenters reacting to the situation questioned whether the case fell within the UCJ’s jurisdiction, drawing attention to a clause in its constitution stating that the committee “shall not have jurisdiction over the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups.”

In a follow-up story on September 22 announcing the alleged honor code violations, “Cavalier Daily Faces UJC Charges,” the paper’s staff quoted Rebecca Glenberg, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, as doubting the validity of the UJC’s jurisdiction. Noting that proceedings against the paper should not be brought “if the judicial council’s bylaws deprive it of jurisdiction to act against student newspapers,” she said that the possibility of disciplining the paper’s staff for writing about issues of importance to the university community presented “great constitutional concerns.” Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) expressed sentiments to The Washington Post on October 19, distilling the conflict to a case of a “student editor [who] got called before a judiciary committee for exercising his First Amendment rights.”

On October 18 the UJC cleared Ally of violating the university’s Standards of Conduct and also affirmed that its constitution deprived it of jurisdiction over student journalism. The newspaper’s managing board published an October 18 editorial titled “Playing by the Rules” prior to Ally’s trial in which it expressed a goal of remaining “accountable to the readers for the accuracy and authenticity of the content that appears in its pages.” Speaking to The Washington Post after the proceedings, Ally said he intended to take action further clarifying the paper’s independence from the university’s judicial system, in hopes of avoiding similar conflicts in the future.

– Mikel J. Sporer
Silha Research Assistant