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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Journalism has no such sin as low-level plagiarism.

The very act of rewriting stolen material makes a theft more sinister and deliberate than the stupid plagiarists who steal whole paragraphs, passages or stories verbatim.

Plagiarism accusations against Fareed Zakaria continue, and Poynter’s Kelly McBride evaluated them for Politico and concluded: “It’s plagiarism. Low-level. But plagiarism.”

Kelly is a longtime friend and one of the strongest and wisest voices on journalism ethics. Several years ago we collaborated on a series of ethics seminars and my respect for her grew each time we worked together. I have praised and promoted the ethics book she edited with Tom Rosenstiel, The New Ethics of Journalism. And I’ll invite and publish or link to any response she has to this post.

But she’s wrong to use the phrase “low-level” in describing dozens of instances of obviously deliberate theft of other people’s work. That’s not all she said. She also said, “It seems obvious that Fareed was overly reliant on his source material.” I agree with that, but it’s a huge understatement. He was overly reliant on his source material, without attribution.

Here’s how we defined plagiarism in Telling the Truth and Nothing But, a book on which I collaborated with journalists from more than 30 journalism organizations, media companies and universities: (more…)

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Fareed Zakaria GPSIf David Carr of the New York Times had documented more than a dozen incidents of apparent plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria, Zakaria probably would have lost his jobs with prominent media outlets.

But the accusations come from writers identified only by two odd-sounding Twitter handles. The substance of the accusations by @blippoblappo and @crushingbort in their blog Our Bad Media gets lost because we don’t know the accusers.

Zakaria gave Politico a response to the initial accusations from Our Bad Media, denying any wrongdoing, but not addressing the substance of most of the 12 instances cited in a Aug. 19 post on Our Bad Media. I have not seen any response from him to their latest post, detailing six more instances of apparent plagiarism from his best-selling book, The Post-American World.

Looking at the substance of the accusations — side-by-side images highlighting verbatim and closely similar passages between Zakaria’s work and sources he never or barely cited — the offenses are similar to the 2012 plagiarism from a Jill Lepore article in the New Yorker, which brought Zakaria a suspension from the three media outlets that featured his work then. I haven’t checked them all out beyond looking at those images, but the checks I have made validate the accusations, and I presume we would have heard if any of them were not accurate.

(more…)

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spjlogo-for-headerThe Society of Professional Journalists adopted a new Code of Ethics Saturday at its meeting in Nashville.

I am pleased that SPJ updated a code that I described four years ago as profoundly outdated. But I’m disappointed that SPJ didn’t provide better leadership in this code.

Before I address my disappointments, I’ll say what pleases me:

Why I’m pleased

I’m pleased that SPJ has a more timely, relevant code. The code has been outdated for years, and I applaud progress. I’m pleased that the code mostly improved since I criticized the first draft in two lengthy blog posts in April and improved a bit more since I criticized the third draft in July. It even improved since Friday morning, when I was one of many during an Excellence in Journalism conference session who criticized the “final draft” that was approved by the Ethics Committee Aug. 28. In a Friday evening meeting, the SPJ Ethics Committee and Board adopted some of the changes suggested by Andy Schotz in a blog post and at Friday morning’s discussion. That I wish for more doesn’t change the fact that this is progress and I do appreciate that. (more…)

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Update: The final draft of the code update was revised again yesterday. I like what I’ve heard about the changes, but I haven’t analyzed it yet.

I will be leading a session at the Excellence in Journalism conference today about the broader ethics discussion in journalism.

At the EIJ conference, the Society of Professional Journalists will vote on adoption of a new ethics code. Here is the latest draft of the code, though it could be amended in floor debate today. My criticism of the revision stands, and I won’t belabor it either in this post or in my EIJ session.

Other ethics initiatives I will discuss include:

Poynter’s Guiding Principles

McBride_New_Ethics_of_JournalismThe new Poynter Guiding Principles for the Journalist, published in the 2013 book, The New Ethics of Journalism, edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel. I blogged in 2012 from a Poynter event to discuss updating the Guiding Principles, then blogged again with suggestions for the new principles and in 2013 with praise and criticism for the completed guidelines. Among other changes, the guiding principles changed two of the three core values from the original Guiding Principles, authored by Bob Steele in the early 1990s. The 1990s principles were organized around the values of truthfulness, independence and minimizing harm. Now the core values are truthfulness, transparency and community. The 1990s SPJ Code and Guiding Principles were strongly similar, with SPJ using the same three core values, plus accountability (Bob dealt with accountability in his elaboration on the other values). In the final draft of the SPJ update, the core values are unchanged, except that transparency is paired with accountability in the last section. (more…)

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I have said multiple times here that attribution is the difference between plagiarism and research.

I also have said many times that linking is a matter of journalism ethics and that if journalists were expected to link to their digital sources, editors would prevent plagiarism more effectively and detect it more quickly.

Fareed Zakaria apparently did more research than attribution in some of his work for Time, CNN and the Washington Post. And his failure to link to sources — and his newsrooms’ failure to demand links — has damaged his credibility as a journalist, however this latest accusation plays out.

The media watchdogs who caught Buzzfeed editor Benny Johnson plagiarizing, known only as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, have documented a dozen cases of apparent plagiarism by Zakaria. All of the incidents they cite occurred prior to the 2012 incident when Zakaria was suspended for plagiarizing the work of the New Yorker’s Jill LePore.

His employers then said they reviewed his previous work, satisfying themselves that the theft was, in the words of Time’s official statement, “an isolated incident.” On their Our Bad Media blog, the watchdogs say that they needed only “less than an hour and a few Google searches” to find a dozen examples of Zakaria using verbatim passages or lightly rewritten passages from other news sources. So they rightly question how rigorously Zakaria’s employers reviewed his work, a question Craig Silverman raised in 2012. (more…)

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The rewrite of the SPJ Code of Ethics is moving in the right direction, just not far enough.

In three monstrously long posts in 2010 and earlier this year, I called for an update of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and criticized the first draft of an update by the Ethics Committee.

In a Saturday meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the Ethics Committee finished its latest draft.

Mónica Guzmán, an Ethics Committee member who led a digital subcommittee that I served on (she was the only committee member on the subcommittee), praised the progress made since the first draft (I missed a second draft published July 3):

I agree that the committee has made progress, but I’m still disappointed in this attempt to update what used to be journalism’s most important ethical guide.

In March, I wrote:

I think I’d prefer no update to these tweaks. If the code remains obviously outdated, the need to update it will remain strong. And maybe they’ll take another try in a few years and get it right or closer to right. I’d rather do that than tweak it now and have the anti-change forces spend the next 18 years claiming they had already updated it.

I’m not sure I’d go that far now. If SPJ wants to return to the days when it was a leading voice in journalism ethics, it certainly needs to go further than the current draft. For that reason, I might vote against this draft if I were an SPJ member (I let my membership lapse because of the lack of progress on updating the Code of Ethics). But I would not say this update is better than none at all. I’ll just be disappointed if SPJ doesn’t go further.

I will not go through the code point by point as I did in the previous posts (which, reading them now, I can see made for some long and perhaps confusing reading). I’ll just summarize the primary things that disappoint and please me.

Here’s what the Ethics Code still needs to do:

Address linking 

I am absolutely flummoxed by the refusal of either SPJ’s Ethics Committee or Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist to address journalists’ reticence to link to digital sources of information that they use. Refusal to link may be the most widespread ethical failure in journalism today, and what good is an ethics code that doesn’t address our failures?

In a response to my March post, Ethics Committee Vice Chair Fred Brown said, “We stuck with basic, abiding principles and tried to avoid any mention of specific technologies.” But that’s not true. The first and latest drafts both refer to “social media” and “online publication.” If specific technologies merited mention in those places (the social media one was unnecessary), then digital linking merits specific mention.

The current draft says “always attribute,” and to many journalists, that just means to add “so-and-so said” after material, not to link to sources. The latest draft also says, “Provide access to source material when relevant and appropriate.” I’m not even sure what “when relevant and appropriate” means. I guess “provide access” covers embeds as well as links. But it’s ridiculous to write around linking. Many, if not most, journalists and news organizations don’t link to sources. They should and SPJ should tell them specifically that they should.

I sent a draft of this post to Mónica and some others who have been involved in this process, inviting response. She said the committee is planning to hyperlink passages of the code to deeper discussions of applying the principles in the code. I look forward to hearing more about those plans, which follow a suggestion I made last year. This doesn’t change anything I said above about the need to address linking in the principles, but it’s an improvement and I welcome it.

Endorse accuracy checklists

Checklists save lives when doctors and pilots use them. They save errors when journalists use them. The current draft makes some strong statements about accuracy but SPJ should go further and endorse a practice that can improve accuracy. Statements of broad principles are fine, but I think it’s an important principle to endorse best practices that are not widely practiced. Principles don’t lead to better journalism. Practices do.

Editing suggestions

The committee should restore the explicit statement that journalists, not sources, are responsible for accuracy. I was pleased to see that phrasing (which I suggested in 2010) make it into the first draft. Now the reference to sources has been removed. That section says journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before its release.” Normally I think a positive statement about what you should do should suffice. But not here.

As I noted in a recent post on corrections, too many journalists blame sources for their errors. The Code of Ethics should be explicit in saying that’s no excuse.

The committee also should restore this passage: “Be sensitive when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by tragedy or grief.” I can’t figure why that was cut from the “Minimize Harm” section of the first draft.

Improvements in this draft

The biggest improvement is the pairing of transparency with accountability in the fourth basic principle in this latest draft, and a little strengthening of the transparency principles in the section. This would be a good place to address linking.

Other improvements included restoring the current code’s call to “give voice to the voiceless” and adding, “Seek sources whose voices are seldom heard.”

Nashville conference

I have no idea whether the latest draft will be adopted when SPJ meets at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville Sept. 4-6. I suppose it could be revised further in debate, though I’m not familiar with the approval process. And certainly it could be rejected, either for going too far or not far enough, or perhaps for reasons not yet apparent to me. Michael Koretzky, an SPJ board member, has been critical of how SPJ’s senior leaders have handled revision of the code. I won’t pretend that I’ve studied his accusations enough to comment on their merit, but clearly the code revision could face some dissent in Nashville.

I commend Mónica for advocating persistently and effectively for a stronger update. And I appreciate the time and thought that the Ethics Committee chairs and members have given to this important job.

I don’t think the SPJ Code of Ethics will regain its place as journalism’s most important guidance on ethics. Poynter’s Guiding Principles are stronger and more relevant. Telling the Truth and Nothing But, Rules of the Road and the Verification Handbook are much stronger, more detailed and more helpful, even though each addresses a narrow range of ethical issues. The Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project also is more helpful, providing detailed guidance in multiple directions in the areas where journalists don’t agree. One of the two sessions I’m leading at the EIJ conference will place the SPJ revision on the context of this broader discussion. (The other will focus on a digital approach to enterprise stories.)

The latest draft at least brings SPJ some relevance in the discussion of journalism ethics today, and that’s an improvement. I hope members push for more when it comes up for approval in September.

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I’m going to repeat myself here, but journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.

Jack Shafer has a great post on “anonymous sources,”* prompted by the New York Times walking back from two stories it had based on unnamed sources (stories you probably read or heard about that apparently falsely disparaged golfer Phil Mickelson and former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl). I encourage reading Shafer’s piece and won’t go into detail on it here.

But remember this is the newspaper that reported false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then published reporter Judith Miller’s explanation, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.”

That was the weakest explanation of journalistic malpractice of anything I’ve heard, and that includes reporters who blame plagiarism or malpractice on being busy or rushed or on careless note-taking.

The Times apparently didn’t learn or has forgotten the important and difficult lessons it learned in the Miller case.

It’s kind of incredible to me that any journalists don’t understand this, but your sources are nearly always wrong. Not about everything, but usually about something. Verification is your job, not the source’s.

Sources can be wrong for a variety of reasons, innocent as well as malicious (some of these reasons apply to on-the-record sources, but I’m focusing on unnamed sources here): (more…)

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