Of the many sins in journalism at least two stand out as potentially fatal: fabrication and plagiarism.
Obviously, degrading truth diminishes the profession and insults the public. Plagiarism earns extra ire for combining deception with theft.
Teaching is another profession that has long struggled to hold the line on intellectual honesty. It’s an uphill battle – as exemplified in a recent New York Times article about cheating at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. The problem is perhaps accelerated in a culture with more and more ways to to copy, paste and send content.
The U.S. has seen ample cases of late where reporters or authors have been caught making stuff up, or borrowing without attribution.
A recent (and on-going) dust-up in Canada contains many of those elements, plus allegations of arrogance and managerial mis-steps from the newspaper in question.
The whole thing is rather nicely summarized in this Toronto Star article.
Basically, an individual blogger called attention to possible problems in certain work by a well-known Canadian columnist.
Side by side comparisons of some material lend credence to interpretations of possible plagiarism – at worst – or lack of proper attribution – at best.
When she’s not blogging, Carol Wainio is not a journalist. She’s an artist. And a visual arts professor at the University of Ottawa. But those details are not related to the issues in this case. Wainio cares about responsible journalism. Enough to blog in support of that cause at “Media Culpa“. Some would say this is a very good thing, as Craig Silverman argues on Poynter.
Wainio offered observations about aspects of material written by nationally-known Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente. One of Wainio’s posts makes a case suggesting (among other infractions) Wente borrowed heavily without attribution from Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner. That post and subsequent discussion “went viral” (as we say these days) and provoked the current tempest.
In initial responses, the Globe and Mail’s public editor Sylvia Stead seems to have minimized the issue. This threw yet more gas on the fire by implying, at least, that anonymous bloggers and social media responses are perhaps not worthy of passing judgement on mainstream media and star columnists. (That, I would say, was a bad idea which will prove to be a big mistake.)
Wente responded as well – in a column that provoked even more negative reaction.
Writing for a rival paper, The National Post, Chris Selley ripped the Globe and Mail’s response.
Selley’s concluding paragraph says some important things:
I don’t know how the Globe found itself in this embarrassing situation, and it gives me no pleasure to see it there: Print journalism needs all the public goodwill it can find out there these days. I think it should stop treating its readers like fools. But if theGlobe is for whatever reason determined to spare Wente her industry-standard just deserts, it should just say so and call off its Public Editor. If anything, her response disdains journalism more than Wente’s cut-and-paste job.
Along the way, CBC radio’s “Q” announced it was suspending Wente from that program’s media panel because of the allegations, as reported here by the Star. (“Q” is an arts, culture and entertainment magazine, portions of which are heard on NCPR weekday evenings at 8 pm)
Dan Gardner (that’s Gardner without an “i”, I hasten to note) is ostensibly staying out of the fray – but he alludes to it in some of his Twitter tweets.
Gardner recommends this summary of the incident from something called gigaom. (Note: I do not personally know any of these players, though I have read Gardner’s columns for many years in the Ottawa Citizen. Betsy Kepes reviewed Gardner’s book “Future Babble” for NCPR in August 2012.)
Naturally, other columns and opinions are flying – ranging from irresponsible to thoughtful. Here’s one worth sharing from Christopher Bird (from the culture section of the Torontoist), titled “Still getting the story wrong“. Here, Bird alludes to a threat and a promise in regards to annoying ‘the Internet’:
The internet—as the Globe has discovered—really, really hates plagiarism, and really, really hates entitlement. And this response by Wente and the Globe seems as if it will inevitably provoke a response from the internet that is more substantial than silly pictures and catcalls in comments. Wente has a long record as a columnist, and by her and her editors’ responses, the internet has essentially just been invited to start checking all of her work to see if she’s lifted more than just those incidents Wainio already noticed. If politicians don’t want to get in a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel, then journalists don’t want to get into a war of fact-checking against an infinite army of fact-checkers with a reason to be sceptical.
(Quip to Christopher Bird about unleashing any fact-checking onslaught: I think the word is spelled “skeptical”.)
But seriously, the incident involves several distinct, important issues. 1) Allegations of sloppiness – misconduct?? – by a specific individual; 2) Allegations of a poor response from a major newspaper; and 3) Arguments about who has standing when it comes to regulating media concerns and the public’s right to know.
The last two strike me as more important for society and journalism as a whole.
It remains to be seen if media ethics change (or improve?) with the rise of blogging and citizen journalism. It’s worth admitting that I am a baby blogger myself and I’m quite behind on social media in particular. As such, my observations in this realm might seem dim-witted and obvious.
But bloggers are making a compelling case that new media has leap-frogged “dead-tree” newspapers with superior ability to quote, link and attribute via links. And that doing so – properly, ethically – adds credibility. Which improves transparency and content. (Or so the argument goes – discuss!)
In any case, it does appear that double standards, protecting star employees, and “dissing” new media are decidedly ill-advised positions to take.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.