The Sad Consequences Of Plagiarism

CHARGES of plagiarism have been leveled in past years against Delaware Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and other luminaries. Now the media are in the hot seat.

Washington state native Laura Parker recently was fired by the Washington Post from her position as Miami bureau chief for using information from another newspaper without crediting the newspaper.

Once an intern with The Times and a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she wrote an amusing story about mosquito infestation in Florida. Although it appeared to be her original work, she used facts and quotations originally carried by the Miami Herald and the Associated Press.

Post managing editor Leonard Downie Jr. calls the incident "a tragic event. Tragic for her. Tragic for the newspaper."

Downie denies that any other journalists at the Post have committed any similar acts in their day-to-day business, and refers to the Post policy, which cites plagiarism as "one of journalism's most unforgivable sins." He has sent a memo to all staff members "clarifying" Post policies regarding the use of other media and giving them credit.

Parker responds, "I made a mistake, which I deeply regret. My integrity and ethics have never been questioned in my 16 years of journalism. I feel I was very harshly punished."

The Miami Herald did not file a complaint about the incident. In fact, the state editor of the Herald, John Pancake, was quoted by the Post: "I think this stuff goes on a lot in journalism. This may have been a little worse than some." Pancake also said he suspected journalists at his own newspaper had committed similar acts.

The Post sent the Miami newspaper a letter of apology. It also reported the transgression to its readers last Saturday.

Parker, born and raised in Mount Vernon, is a graduate of the University of Washington and a former Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

Most journalists to whom I have spoken here and at other newspapers feel Parker's treatment was too severe, at least from the few facts both parties have shared about the incident. The industry standard appears to be less stern. Of the cases I tracked down, including one that occurred as long as 20 years ago (a public-relations release was printed verbatim and the reporter put his byline on it), most wrongdoers have been allowed to redeem themselves. Living with the stigma for the rest of their lives is often punishment enough for most journalists.

While you may think readers would be the harshest critics of those guilty of plagiarism, Sacramento Bee readers turned out to be forgiving, as long as the offending journalist responded with honesty.

Bee TV columnist Bob Wisehart lifted some material from a book written by a best-selling author, and was suspended. Readers contacted Bee ombudsman Art Nauman, asking for Wisehart's return. He came back.

At The Oregonian in Portland several years ago, an editorial writer contrived quotations he attributed to then-Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray. After an eight-week suspension, he resumed his job.

New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield, suspended for a week, will not lose his job. The paper acknowledged that part of his recent article about a plagiarized commencement speech delivered by the dean of Boston University's journalism school had been taken from the Boston Globe, without giving the Globe credit. The plagiarizing dean was relieved of his higher post, but remains on BU's journalism faculty.

Why should you care?

"Because plagiarism speaks to the integrity of the newspaper," said Seattle Times Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher.

Perhaps even more important is the issue of accuracy. "Plagiarized news copy has not been independently verified and the newspaper publishing it has no idea whether it is accurate or fair," he added.

In the past 13 years, Fancher said there have been four plagiarism-related incidents at The Times. None has resulted in dismissals, but all four offending journalists were warned they could be dismissed if it ever happened again.

Among many media managers, the issue of intent appears to be primary. Was the unattributed use of information an intentional deceit or a careless effort to inform?

Don Pember, professor at the University of Washington School of Communications, said the person who copies a public-relations press release without attributing the information is committing "a practice far more evil" than compiling information from other media to put a good story together. Why? Because he thinks businesses or individuals benefit unfairly from the duplicated biased press release. Readers benefit from a good story even though it may incorporate information lifted from other sources.

How often does this happen? He referred to a 1980 Columbia Journalism Review article which reported that 32 press releases had been reprinted, verbatim, in a single edition of a national newspaper. Some of those reprinted press releases carried bylines, an indication the work had been done by staff writers. The newspaper: The Wall Street Journal.

The Post may be a bit more sensitive, since former Post reporter Janet Cooke had her Pulitzer Prize taken away from her after it was learned that she contrived a character named Jimmy in order to tell a story of children and drugs. Later she reportedly said Jimmy was intended to represent all the children she had encountered when she researched the story, but she did not indicate that a compilation was being depicted. That was seen as intentionally misleading readers.

Is it a stretch to connect plagiarism with the Janet Cooke incident or others like it?

"No," says Fancher. "They are all reflective of working in a pressure-packed occupation. Even the best people cut corners sometimes."

Comment: It is time the industry takes a hard look at its "business as usual" attitude toward lifting original material without giving credit to media sources, or verifying accuracy of second-hand information. Recent incidents should push newsrooms across the nation to rededicate themselves to meticulous, not careless, use of source materials.

Colleen Patrick is a privately contracted consultant, not a Times employee. Questions? Call her at 464-8979 or write: P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Fax: 464-2261.