On The Plagiarism Case And How It Was Handled

If you haven’t read the news we posted Thursday, please do. Click on these headlines:

- Editor’s Note: Ethics Violations Identified In Several NPR Music And WQXR Reports
- Stories By A Contributing Writer Published On NPR.org That Contain Plagiarism
- NPR Acknowledges Plagiarism In 10 Music Stories

The ombudsman has also posted:

- Plagiarism Found In 10 NPR Music Stories

Before describing how this situation was handled, we should note that the Ethics Handbook is clear: “Plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is theft. At NPR it’s an unforgivable offense.”

The Handbook goes on to say:

“That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We do not, for example, produce news ‘spots’ or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. NPR’s standard is that our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.”

Now, about how things were handled once we knew the extent of the problem.

We started from the position that when we make mistakes, we acknowledge them. Steps were taken to do that:

1. We stated as clearly as possible, in multiple places, what had happened and what we had done to correct the mistakes. That’s why there is an editor’s note signed by Mike Oreskes and WQXR General Manager Graham Parker, an editor’s note on top of the page where the stories in question were collected and editor’s notes on each of the 10 pages where the pieces originally appeared.

2. We did not try to hide the stories. They were all put on one page because we felt that would be a simple and user-friendly way to make them available to anyone who wanted to see what was in those pieces that had appeared elsewhere before.

3. We highlighted the words and phrases that had appeared elsewhere and linked to the places they had been drawn from. Again, we aimed to make it as simple as possible for anyone to see what had been done.

4. A headline and link to the main editor’s note was put on the NPR.org homepage.

5. The Two-Way was given no instructions other than to cover the news as it saw fit.

We will make mistakes, though hopefully none this serious. Steps similar to those taken in this situation may need to be repeated. Having them written down here may prove helpful in the future.

Before finishing, a couple more things should be noted.

The first sign that there was a problem came last Friday when copy editor Mark Mobley was checking an unusual spelling and came across a document with phrases much like those in the piece he was editing. He brought the duplication to the attention of editors at NPR Music. That was exactly the right thing to do. Mark was then asked to start going through the pieces the writer had done for NPR.org in the past. His research turned up the multiple examples.

Tom Huizenga, Jessica Goldstein and Jacob Ganz worked through this situation with what I would say was “firm compassion.” It is not easy to deal with news such as this when it involves a person you like and have enjoyed working with. They stayed focused on what was the right thing to do for NPR and its audience.

We all owe Mark, Tom, Jessica and Jacob a thanks.

(Memmos; Oct. 30, 2015)

October 30, 2015

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