Plagiarism and The Gazette’s editorial wrath

Wed, Jul 8, 2009


Readers of this morning’s Gazette were greeted by a front-page note from Editor Jeff Thomas that announced the firing of a summer intern for the grave sin of plagiarism.

According to Thomas, the unpaid “employee” had plagiarized parts of four different stories which had run in the paper. In the single example cited by the editor, an entire paragraph had been swiped from an article that had appeared in the New York Times during 1999.

Thomas fired her – fair enough. He followed up by naming her in an indignant, front-page piece in which he referred to the Gazette’s obligation to cover the news fairly and accurately. No quarrel with that – but why did he choose to call her out by name?

A joke that used to circulate in the former Soviet Union described workplace life in mordant terms: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”  And Grenadians are wont to say “T’ief from t’ief make God laugh!”

The Dixie Chicks, in their hit song “Wide Open Spaces,” sang of a young woman’s need to find “room to make big mistakes.” Those spaces have disappeared for the young Gazette intern – now, her mistakes, big and small, will follow her forever. 

That’s why I think a little more compassion and a little less editorial wrath might have been appropriate.

The intern’s plagiarism was glaringly obvious – just as obvious as Pulitzer prize-winning columnist’s Maureen Dowd’s pilfered paragraph in a recent piece. 

In a column published on May 17, Dowd lifted about 40 words directly from a column by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall.  Called out, Dowd admitted the theft, made some lame excuse and moved on.

She apologized. She repented, and Marshall was gracious – and she’s still a highly-paid columnist.

I suspect that the G’s former intern will find a career better suited to her than journalism, one in which plagiarism is no vice and originality is no virtue (recognize the plagiarized paraphrase?).  That would be politics, of course-and her role model would be Vice President Joe Biden who, twenty years ago, stole an entire speech from an obscure British pol.


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8 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Says:

    It appears as though to avoid being publicly lambasted (or professionally ruined for life) for plagiarism you need to be paid well in excess of your worth, or be a politician – the latter covering the initial criteria.

  2. Dick Burns Says:

    Dammit, where’s our new rugby stadium?!

  3. Cate Boddington Says:

    The naming was purely for shaming, and perhaps not a little CYA on the Gazette’s part. The intern was there to learn; sometimes it is by our mistakes that we learn best. I would think getting chewed out by the boss and fired would be enough of a consequence- this will be a permanent part of her employment file. Readers of the Gazette had no need to know this intern’s name..maybe Jeff Thomas could make her wear a scarlet letter “P” so we could all throw our Starbucks lattes at her if we run into her downtown! Or shun her at the very least.

  4. ES Says:

    Having read the Gazete article: it seems to me that the intern’s writing just barely meets the definition of plagiarism. She lifted evocative phrases, yes, and changed them a little too little. But a writing class I just took referred to this kind of thing as the use of a mentor text, not plagiarism. The Gazette’s reaction is entirely too shrill – especially for a publication that, for the last several weeks, has blithely presented information previously published in the CSBJ as something their reporters had uncovered.

  5. Jeff Thomas Says:

    Truth is, I gave a moment’s thought to keeping the intern’s name out of it, then decided otherwise.

    For one thing, it’s a bit inconsistent to make a public apology rooted in transparency and at the same time remain opaque about the source of the transgression.

    For another, this was no mere personnel matter. We aren’t talking about an employee padding a time card. We’re talking about the basic contract between citizens and the journalists they employ to do the constitutionally protected job of reporting on their community. If that sounds a bit grandiose, I won’t apologize for being a stickler for principle. We would be no less public with the name of a reporter who made up facts or concealed a conflict of interest. These are transgressions at the heart of journalism. Especially in a job where you get to have your name place on your work, age does not exempt your transgressions from public disclosure. None of her journalism instructors told us they expected us to withhold her name. They said we handled it just right.

    It would be unfair to the rest of our interns to leave room for suspicion that it might have been one of them.

    (side note to ES: Gazette news stories cite the source of any information we cannot verify independently. If we are scooped and we fail to obtain the same information on our own, we give credit to the newspaper, TV or radio station, or website that originally reported the information. As far as I can tell, the CSBJ lives by this credo, too, and I don’t think they would consider it being “blithe.” That said, I’m unaware of any other news organization that has spent the time, energy and money on extracting public documents from the city that the Gazette has spent.)

  6. John Hazlehurst Says:

    Jeff, I appreciate your spirited and articulate defense of your decision to publish the name of the intern who was found to have plagiarized parts of stories published under her byline in the Gazette.

    I still disagree with that decision.

    Consider: hers was an unpaid gig. Its purpose: to be taught, to learn, and to work. Journalism is a craft – and one which is far less important than we like to believe. If plumbers, carpenters, bus drivers, or auto assembly workers cheat or cut corners, their actions may have lethal consequences. The intern harmed only herself – and the Gazette’s sense of its own gravitas – by lifting a few elegant phrases from a decade-old story in the NYT. She needed to be fired, and it was entirely appropriate to tell her profs why she was dismissed. But to be, in effect, given a life sentence for stealing a candy bar seems more than a little harsh.

    On the other hand, now that journalism is no longer an option, she might find a far more lucrative career in investment banking, real estate, or the law.

  7. ES Says:

    I accept Mr. Thomas’ explanation of how the paper handles being scooped. However, it’s one thing to simply report information – and a whole other thing to claim to have discovered that information.

  8. Jeff Thomas Says:

    ES – you’re right. And I would be glad to see any examples of it, because I’m unaware of any case in which we claimed, erroneously, to be the sole discoverer of any piece of information. PM me if you need to.

    John — here’s where I disagree with you: “The intern harmed only herself – and the Gazette’s sense of its own gravitas.”

    No. She harmed the good-faith relationship that this newspaper has with readers. If we lose that, we lose the franchise. If trying to protect that is considered hubris, I plead guilty.

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