Is Lack of Attribution Plagiarism?

 

 

Fareed Zakaria                                                                                                             Getty photo

 

By Casey Bukro

Fareed Zakaria finds himself the target of anonymous bloggers who accuse him of plagiarism.

Zakaria says he is not a plagiarist, but media carrying his columns on international affairs — Newsweek, The Washington Post and Politico — have posted corrections or editor’s notes advising readers that Zakaria had not sufficiently attributed sources for material in some of his columns.

Now take a step back for a minute to ponder how the case underscores differences in the way journalism works now, compared with just a few years ago.

In the past, even a whiff of plagiarism was a firing offense. The hammer came down hard in most cases. Mike Barnicle was fired from the Boston Globe for plagiarism. Jayson Blair was booted from the New York Times for similar offenses, plagiarism and fabrication.

And some editors in the past would dismiss information from anonymous sources as lacking credibility unless identity and motivation were known.

In the Zakaria case, the sources are bloggers known only as BlippoBlappo and CrushingBort who consider themselves plagiarism watchdogs at Our Bad Media. They cited 50 examples of what they considered insufficient attribution in Zakaria’s columns. They describe themselves as two young men who are not journalists.

Zakaria also appears on CNN in a program focusing on international affairs. He is widely respected and seen or read on multiple platforms. And that’s part of the problem, say the anonymous plagiarism sleuths. They say Zakaria is treated with a deference that is not shown to minor league journalists. He continues to write columns for media that attached warnings to some of his past columns.

Maybe that makes what he did correctable or excusable. Another new slant on journalism as it is done today, when the focus is more on finance and new business models. And maybe some editors believe lack of attribution is not plagiarism.

The Columbia Journalism Review points out that “outcry within the journalistic community, meanwhile, has been unexpectedly mute, with many discussions focused on the semantic question of whether Zakaria’s mistakes constitute what some news organizations consider an unforgivable sin.”

Zakaria admitted to a “mistake” in 2012, but said that for the most part he uses information that is generally or widely known.

In tweaking its code of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists this year added “always attribute” to a long-time admonition to “never plagiarize.”

National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel began a segment on Zakaria by pointing out that The Washington Post was the fifth news organization to say “that work it has published by Zakaria appears to have attribution problems.”

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik said the anonymous bloggers argue that “he’s done so much lifting unattributed characterizations of other people’s reporting that it amounts to plagiarism.”

Folkenflik went on to say that other critics insist Zakaria “is getting away with stuff that others wouldn’t be allowed to do who are more junior, who don’t have the brand-name recognition that he does…”

Dylan Byers of Politico.Com also outlined the campaign waged by the anonymous “plagiarism detectives,” and reported that Zakaria, in an email to Politico, argued “that he simply cited the same facts as others, which did not constitute plagiarism.”

Others say it’s a troubling pattern.

Writer Lloyd Grove wondered if Zakaria can survive the firestorm.

CNN, however, said it stands by Zakaria.

 

 

 

 

GamerGate Ethics: It’s Not About Scoring Points

What’s the point of video game debate? Consumer reviews pose valid ethical issues, but not this one.

Grand Theft Auto 5
Off-the-rails video mayhem in Grand Theft Auto 5 (Rockstar Games)

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Critics are prepared to justify their opinions, but shouldn’t be forced to defend their livelihoods, much less their lives. Yet that’s the challenge now facing video game reviewers, and it’s a struggle that tests the maturity of their industry.

Threats against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian brought the issue mainstream attention. An anonymous email warned Utah State University administrators of a shooting massacre at her speech on women in video games. She canceled the appearance.

It’s hard not to identify with that dilemma. But when I circulated the New York Times report on Sarkeesian’s cancelation, the Twitter response was harsh. “Oh boo hoo,” one wrote, “those terrible, count them, ZERO, attacks on hated busybody con artists.” That suggests the level of the “GamerGate” debate.

No regrets from this editor if the mayhem stays at zero. I’m trained to keep writers safe. Mostly reporters want an editor to check their facts and their logic; reviewers need a sounding board. We may even disapprove of what our critics say. Yet editors defend their right to say it. Must we defend to the death?

Continue reading GamerGate Ethics: It’s Not About Scoring Points

Take This Job and Shove It

 

Dave McKinney

 Dave McKinney

 

By Casey Bukro

 

Once again, one of Chicago’s top journalists is telling his bosses  to “take this job and shove it.”

The latest example is Dave McKinney, a highly respected  Chicago Sun-Times political reporter and Springfield statehouse bureau chief.

McKinney complained of being “yanked from my beat” and placed on temporary leave after staffers for Bruce Rauner, candidate for Illinois governor in an election that was only weeks away, made accusations against McKinney and his wife “in a last-ditch act of intimidation” trying to kill a story about Rauner.

McKinney pointed out that the Sun-Times editorially endorsed Rauner’s run for governor.

“Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper,” McKinney wrote in his resignation letter. “They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times.”

Journalists were quick to come to McKinney’s defense.

The Chicago Headline Club, with a membership of about 500 journalists, said it was “shocked and disappointed” at McKinney’s treatment, and called it “a sad day in the history of the Sun-Times and Chicago journalism.”  The news spread fast.

In response, Jim Kirk, Sun-Times publisher and editor-in-chief, called McKinney “among the best in our profession,” but his leave was intended to “ensure there were no conflicts of interest……” Kirk denied that the newspaper’s ownership and management had any role in the matter. He took responsibility for the decisions.

Chicago tends to take its journalism, and sometimes its journalists, seriously.

The last time such an open conflict over news ethics erupted was in 1997, when Carol Marin and Ron Magers quit as evening co-anchors at WMAQ-TV Channel 5 over management’s decision to hire trash talk host Jerry Springer as a commentator on their news broadcast. Springer was known for hosting a show that featured raucous domestic disputes.

Marin and Magers considered Springer’s role on their broadcast “an affront to their credibility and integrity.”

On the day she quit, Marin had a story in the Chicago Sun-Times, where she is a political writer, with the headline: “Credibility, Thy Name Isn’t Springer.”

The decision to hire Springer turned out disastrous for WMAQ-TV. Not only did it lose two admired co-anchors, its 10 p.m. newscast ratings plunged 13 percent.

Robert Feder, a media columnist for the Sun-Times at the time, wrote that Channel 5 executives admitted that hiring Springer was a mistake after losing the anchors and “sending thousands of viewers fleeing in disgust.”

Springer also quit WMAQ after only two nights on the air, saying “it’s gotten too personal.”

Television viewers often form bonds with TV personalities, who are usually attractive and friendly. It’s as though those people on TV are personal friends, sometimes.

Those kinds of bonds seldom form with the largely invisible newspaper writers and reporters, who sometimes describe themselves as “ink-stained wretches.”

In this multi-media world, McKinney did appear on television via Skype broadcasts, reporting on political developments in Springfield. But it’s unlikely that readers will flee from the Sun-Times over the McKinney affair, as viewers fled WMAQ over the resignations of Marin and Magers.

In one of those strange twists, Carol Marin collaborated with McKinney on the Rauner investigation. Marin responded, saying the Rauner investigation was fair and accurate, although a “scorched earth” philosophy is not unusual in a political campaign.

“And so the Rauner team went over our heads to our bosses at NBC5 and the Sun-Times….” with untrue accusations, she wrote.

Hardball is the way the game is played in Chicago in both cases. But the basic issues are the same: Ethics, credibility and integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cited Out of Context: Reporting Data With Integrity

A Medicare database, second-hand stats and social-science findings shed light on how to handle data with care.

Chicago School of Data conference
Samia Malik (left) compares notes with technologists at the Chicago School of Data conference.

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Journalists look for reassurance in data, as a way to validate what their sources tell them. Scientists aren’t so sure – they joke about “data” being the plural of “anecdote.” Two sources are better than one, except when they’re both wrong.

“You can really jump to the wrong conclusions if you don’t have an understanding of the background of the data,” says Matthew Roberts, informatics manager for Chicago’s health department.

Researchers make a familiar complaint about their data: Getting quoted out of context. The issue’s playing out in a Medicare database of payments doctors took from medical suppliers. Both groups found errors in the data, and payments on research in progress were withheld.

Before the site launched, Roberts told the Chicago School of Data conference that news media inspecting the raw data were among the first to jump to conclusions.

“They just made some wrong guesses about what the data meant,” he said. The final Medicare database gives companies a chance to comment — to give details that could suggest a productive partnership rather than a conflict of interest.

Continue reading Cited Out of Context: Reporting Data With Integrity

An Ombudsman’s Dilemma

By Casey Bukro

See how the Toledo Blade’s ombudsman handles a reader’s complaint that the newspaper’s president and general manager also serves as chairman of the University of Toledo’s board of trustees.

The reader calls that a conflict of interest. The ombudsman says it’s not because the paper’s president operates on the business side of the newspaper, not the news side.

The reader correctly wondered how the newspaper can independently cover university activities when its president is head of the university’s board, especially when the university is in the process of selecting a new president.

AdviceLine periodically gets complaints about cases like this where top news officials serve on local civic organizations. The defense often is that the media official is performing a civic duty.

The Blade’s ombudsman cites the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics in his president’s defense, but does not mention that the code warns against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.”

Notice that in the Toledo case the reader is not convinced that the president’s involvement with the university is innocent and free of potential duplicity. That’s probably a typical reaction.

Civic organizations usually invite media officials to serve on their boards in hopes of publicity. The public knows that.

Given the threat to media credibility, this long-time practice should be abandoned. It’s from another era, before the changes now transforming journalism.

Especially lately, AdviceLine is getting more complaints from reporters about publishers and editors dictating news coverage favoring advertisers, in the pursuit of revenue.

In the real world, the argument that publishers or other top media managers operate strictly on the business side and do not influence the news side is a bit misleading. The boss, after all, is the boss, and he or she knows it. That can lead to a few “suggestions” from the top.

But it’s always interesting to see how an ombudsman defends the actions of his boss. You can decide how convincing he was.

Three Ethics Takeaways From ONA Conference

Alberto Cairo
Alberto Cairo of the University of Miami says ethics have not kept pace with data visualization techniques. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By David Craig

The Online News Association annual conference, which I attended September 24-27 in Chicago, always provides great updates on trends and issues in digital journalism. But it’s also a great place to hear about ethical challenges, both new and continuing.

Ethical issues were the focus of three sessions, including a challenge session in which audience members had to react quickly to ethical scenarios on topics such as use of user-generated content. But ethics also came up in sessions that were primarily about other topics.

Here are three ethics takeaways from the conference:

1. Content that disappears will create new ethical challenges. Amy Webb, founder of Webbmedia Group, delivered her annual talk on “10 Tech Trends for Journalists.” One of them was “ephemeral content,” an increasingly popular kind of social media communication.

Webb said Snapchat, an app developed to share photos that’s popular with young people, provided a way to send private content that users might not want to stay around, but “it’s also a way to clear up our cluttered social streams.” She said other companies are providing messaging services with content that disappears, appears anonymously or is even encrypted. She predicted that most messaging apps will have some kind of means of making content ephemeral in the next 24 months.

Ephemeral content is relevant to journalism because some news organizations including The Washington Post are experimenting with it. But Webb pointed to an ethical difficulty: “Ephemeral content can be used for publishing news. But it can’t be corrected, because no record is left.”

This kind of communication raises questions of accountability for the accuracy of content because once it’s gone, there’s no way to amend a false message or even verify what the message said.

“Talk internally about the implications,” Webb suggested to news organizations.

Even for journalists who don’t use this kind of content, the discussion points to ongoing questions about what it means to ethically handle incorrect content in social media messages.

2. Algorithms shape the truth that people learn about the world and point to new ethical obligations for journalists. Kelly McBride, vice president for academic programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and Nick Diakopoulos, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and an expert in computational journalism, presented a session titled “Algorithms are the New Gatekeepers.”

McBride said algorithms, because they shape how news is distributed and to whom, have a powerful influence on what gets attention in the marketplace of ideas. As one of the presentation slides showed, they also affect a huge number of other areas of life including search rankings, online recommendations, advertising and relationships.

Diakopoulos talked about the power of algorithms in influencing the information we receive because of their ability to prioritize, classify, associate and filter it. He argued that the power they carry suggests new responsibilities – and opportunities – for journalists in reporting because they can help hold algorithms accountable. Stories might address issues including discrimination, mistakes that deny service, censorship, illegal activity or false predictions.

This kind of reporting isn’t easy. He pointed to several possible approaches to “auditing” algorithms – reviews of computer code, surveys of users about their experience, analysis of input and output, having users report data and (with ethical problems he acknowledged) impersonating users with programs.

Despite the difficulties, the social and economic impact of algorithms make it important for journalists to try new ways of reporting.

3. The power and availability of data visualization tools call for increasing attention to the ethics of visualization messages. Alberto Cairo, a professor at the University of Miami who teaches on informational graphics and data visualization, gave a session called “The Journalist, the Artist and the Engineer: The Ethics of Data Visualization.”

Cairo argued that the core goal of journalism ethics is to improve the public’s understanding of issues “relevant for their conducting good lives” while minimizing any potential harm. He said tools to create interactive charts, maps and other informational graphics are becoming more popular and widely available but that ethics is not keeping pace. He said that helping the public understand what good, ethical visualizations look like can help to better society and avoid the impact of misleading messages.

Even though great data visualizations are beautiful as well as functional, Cairo said, they must hold to a high standard of truthfulness that doesn’t oversimplify or distort the information being represented. Using the example of a graphic from the National Cable Television Association, he talked about going from showing things that are true but may leave out important information to showing a picture that’s more complicated but also truer and more accurate.

Cairo urged the audience not to hide complexity from the public or point to patterns that really aren’t there. In doing so, he is rightly pointing to a standard of care in visualization that is as high as the standards used in good investigative writing.

New SPJ Code

 

By Casey Bukro

Some might argue that it takes a certain amount of hutzpah to adopt a set of principles intended to curb the worst  behavior of journalists, sometimes seen by the public as an unruly bunch of ruffians.

But that’s what the Society of Professional Journalists did at its annual convention in Nashville. Actually, it was an updated, boiled down, tweaked, massaged version of a code SPJ adopted in 1996.

The framers of the new version started the revision process by arguing that the 1996 version failed to take into account all the technological innovation that has transformed journalism. Others argued that the ethical foundations of journalism don’t change, regardless of technological changes.

A reading of the updated code suggests that the foundationalists won, since the new code does not mention technology.  It’s a smoother read in places, but most of the original principles are still there, with some added emphasis on transparency and accuracy.

The code does not “sing,” as some journalists had wished, hoping that journalists who pride themselves as wordsmiths might have produced a more inspiring document. It tends to plod from one “do” and “don’t” to another.

But it is the nature of journalists to quibble about how things are worded.

The Society of Professional Journalists introduced its first original code of ethics in 1973,  causing a wave of consternation and congratulation among journalists.  Some thought a code of conduct was contrary to First Amendment protection of Freedom of the Press.

The reaction to the 2014 version was more subdued.

Kevin Smith, outgoing SPJ ethics chair, said one of the goals of the revision was to address “the growing problems with transparency, including news outlets failing to disclose clear conflicts of interest.”

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute pointed out that, at the same joint convention, the Radio Television Digital News Association disclosed its own proposed code of ethics.

“The SPJ and RTDNA codes are similar,” said Tompkins, “both focusing on accuracy, accountability and independence.” He also pointed out that the SPJ code took aim at using anonymous sources in stories.

Public Relations practitioners also would benefit from taking note of the SPJ code because it addresses two key issues: Anonymous sources and a prohibition against paying for access to news.

“So if you’re ever talking to a journalist to give information,” writes Ellis Friedman, “think twice about requesting anonymity….”

Most people might think that adopting a code of ethics is not especially controversial, but they should think again. Such efforts always trigger powerful emotions for one reason or another. Journalists can be fractious.

Among those is Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director, who complained that the society was unethical in the manner in which the code was rewritten, charging that it was done in secrecy. SPJ leaders were not pleased with his remarks.

And he complained that the new code was adopted by an antiquated method through representatives attending a national convention.

“The code may have needed a tech update,” Koretzky wrote, but “SPJ leaders clung to a century-old system that featured less than 125 insiders making the decision for all its 7,500 members.” Voting should have been done electronically, he argued, giving all members of the society a chance to vote on the updated code.

Koretzky promises that’s not the last word on SPJ’s code of ethics.

“But from bad things, sometimes good things come,” he wrote. “Already, work is underway on an alternate SPJ code of ethics.”

 

 

 

 

 

Images of War

 

By Casey Bukro

James Foley was an American photojournalist who captured the gruesome images of savage warfare, until he became one of those images himself.

Foley, 40, dressed in prisoner orange with a shaved head, is seen kneeling next to a masked, black-clad man holding a knife. Kidnapped in Syria almost two years ago, Foley seems to grimace as the masked man clutches his shirt from behind.

A video posted on YouTube, then taken down, reportedly shows Foley decapitated, his bloody head detached from his body and resting on his back. Two U.S. officials said they believe the video is authentic.

Journalistically, one of the issues in reporting on Foley is whether the grim photo, which seems to show the journalist in the last moments of his life, should have been published.

The New York Post and the New York Daily News gave the photo front-page exposure, causing Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip to ask if the tabloids had gone “too far by printing gruesome images of James Foley’s execution.”

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages sensitivity in the use of photographs involving those caught up by tragedy or grief, and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

For tabloids, that can be a challenge. The rule seems to be the more shocking, the better, and big images are best

This is not the first time the New York Post is seen as going “too far.” On Dec. 4, 2012, it published a cover photo of a man desperately trying to climb up on the platform of the New York City subway after a panhandler allegedly pushed him onto the tracks.

The man in the photo is moments from death as he looks at the train bearing down on him.

The photo appeared with the words, “this man is about to die,” and “doomed.” It caused outrage among those who thought it was heartless to publish such a photo. Some thought the photographer should have helped the doomed man, instead of taking his picture.

Shock value has always been a tool of the trade for tabloid journalism, and, to some extent its younger media relative, online journalism.

What does it mean these days to “go too far”? Is that idea passé?

There was a time when the personal lives of American presidents were off limits. Clearly, rules change.

What do you think?  Is shock value just a hangover from tabloid journalism and outmoded, or justified at a time when movies and television trade in sex and sensationalism? Are we just old-fashioned when we cringe from photos of men about to die?

Journalists from three organizations, including SPJ, are pondering writing or rewriting codes of ethics. What should they say about shock value in the news?

Plagiarism: A Renaissance for Attribution

When New York Times critic Carol Vogel previewed an artist’s retrospective, readers were quick to question her report.

he Young St. John the Baptist
Piero di Cosimo, “Young St. John the Baptist” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Renaissance artists might have struggled with the idea of plagiarism. Florentine salons respected tradition and uniformity, and apprentices in Piero di Cosimo’s studio learned by imitating the master. National Gallery of Art curator Gretchen Hirschauer told New York Times critic Carol Vogel that Piero’s work entered American collections partly by accident. It was attributed to other artists.

But the concept of plagiarism has evolved. When Vogel previewed Hirschauer’s retrospective of Piero’s work, a few readers were quick to question her report. It started with a list of Piero’s peculiarities, citing contemporary Giorgio Vasari, who’s still studied in paperback. But the wording was close to an even more common source, Wikipedia. The print passage is shortened online, and ombudsman Margaret Sullivan suggests Times editors might take further steps if a pattern emerges.

The word plagiarism first appears during the Reformation. The Random House Dictionary defines it as “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.” Universities have moved beyond the Renaissance academy, with rules against copying and paraphrasing. The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code simply says, “Never plagiarize.

Yet the practice continues. Evidence of plagiarism in Sen. John Walsh’s Army War College research puts him under pressure to withdraw from the November election. Repeated instances on the website BuzzFeed got a producer fired last month. And delegates to SPJ’s 2014 convention will consider adding another ethics directive: “Always attribute.

Continue reading Plagiarism: A Renaissance for Attribution

Anon Again

 

By Casey Bukro

Anonymous sources — used by media and by government officials — came up again in a New York Daily News piece by James Warren.

Warren used a press briefing by Josh Earnest, the new White House press secretary, to illustrate how Earnest and a reporter dueled, trading accusations of withholding sources. Back and forth they went, parry and thrust.

Warren also comments on the value of White House news briefings, and whether they actually produce news.

“It has been a fairly informative ritual at times evolved (perhaps partly as a result of the cameras) into an hour or so of premeditated evasions by the spokesman; a bit too much prosecutorial posturing by some of the reporters; and, ultimately, rhetorical stand-offs in which there’s little advancement in public understanding of important matters.

Actually, Warren noted, if a White House reporter’s annual salary depended on legitimate stories produced by the briefings, he’d “be eligible for unemployment compensation.”

But the bulk of Warren’s story deals with the give-and-take between Earnest and a reporter, who was asking for more on-the-record sources from the White House. That would depend, said Earnest, on a case-by-case evaluation and ground rules “that will serve your interests and the White House interest the best.”

Warren called the “spitball fight” hypocritical.

“The Washington media, like media at other levels of journalism, is often involved in a mutual self-protection racket with the people we cover,” he wrote. “It can be at the White House, City Hall in Chicago or a county board in Texas. The dynamic is roughly similar. Too many reporters are manipulated with scarcely a qualm.”

About.Com Media describes the dangers of using anonymous news sources and offers five questions to ask yourself before trusting anonymous sources.

The site points out that inexperienced reporters might believe that using anonymous sources “make news stories sound more important,” but the practice presents “many ethical and legal dangers.”

Taking a Devil’s Advocate approach, New York News & Politics explored whether the Watergate investigation leading to President Nixon’s resignation could have been possible without  W. Mark Felt, later identified as the “Deep Throat” confidential informant.

The story touches on the working habits of Seymour Hersh and Jayson Blair, with comments from Bob Woodward.

“Journalism exists to get us closer to all sorts of truth, and anonymous sources are essential to the endeavor,” concludes the author, Kurt Andersen. “Even now, they provide more social benefit than they (exact) in moral costs.”