Monday, January 10, 2005


Early on the morning of December 31 I had some complimentary words for Nick Coleman's Strib column of that day about the ordeal of Mary Peek. However, just as I was finishing up my post I discovered through a simple Google search for "Mary Peek" that the Strib column looked a lot like a rehash of a column Coleman had written about Peek for the Pioneer Press back in 2002.

For instance, this how the Pioneer Press column opened:
The pieces of shrapnel in Mary Peek's arms look like little specks of coal beneath her fair skin. At one time, there were so many she only went to see the doctor for help removing the big pieces. The little ones she took care of herself, using a razor blade to cut them out when they made their way to the surface.
Reading this took me aback, because Coleman expressed the same arresting image in nearly identical terms in the December 31 Strib column:
They looked like pieces of coal beneath her skin, and over the years, as they worked their way out, she used a razor to remove them when they got close to the surface.
There are other examples; read for yourself and judge. I should note that the Pioneer Press column is about twice as long (and even more compelling) than the Strib column, and that the Strib column includes some material that wasn't in the Pioneer Press column, such as the news of Peek's death and funeral arrangements and new quotes from Peek's husband and son. But all in all I'd say that at least two-thirds of the Strib column looks to have been lifted in substantially identical form from the Pioneer Press column. Also (and this to me is very significant), nothing in the Strib column divulged the existence of the Pioneer Press column, or, for that matter, that Coleman had ever written about Peek before in any forum.

I updated my post to note this discovery, threw in a snarky comment about professional standards, and went to bed. After sleeping on it, I felt a little less snarky and a little more genuinely curious. So I sent an e-mail to the Strib's new reader's representative, Kate Parry, asking her what the paper's policy was in this regard.

While I waited for her response, I did some online research about what standards, if any, govern self-plagiarism (if that is indeed the best term to characterize this situation). Most of the ethics codes I found (and there are a gaggle of them--a sure sign that nobody who opines on journalistic standards really knows what the hell they are talking about) were vague or otherwise unhelpful. For instance, here in its entirety is what the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists has to say about plagiarism: "Never plagiarize." Pithy and refreshingly direct, but not particularly useful. The Society has gone a little further by compiling some excerpts on plagiarism from various other ethics codes (available at journalism.org). Most of these are more detailed, some significantly so, but none addresses the issue of reusing one's own work.

However, I did find one source that addresses it head on: an article by Roy Peter Clark entitled "The Unoriginal Sin" that originally appeared in the March 1983 issue of Washington Journalism Review and is currently available online at poynter.org. The article discussed several flavors of plagiarism before coming to the relevant one:
RECYCLING YOUR OLD STORIES. A low-grade ethical problem is the borrowing by a writer of his own work. Even Ann Landers has been caught and criticized for passing off old work as new. As writers move from newspaper to newspaper, they take files of their stories with them and are not above copying themselves when pressed. Such exhumation should be done with the permission of the newspaper in which the story first appeared and with a note of explanation to the reader. [Emphasis mine.]
So, if we take as our first approximation of a governing principle the sentence I marked in bold, it's hard not to conclude that Coleman's Strib column is "ethical[ly] problem[atic]," albeit in a "low-grade" way. While it's possible that the Pioneer Press consented to the recycling of the prior column, a "note of explanation to the reader" in the Strib was, as I mentioned above, conspicuously lacking.

In addition to this top-down, code-driven approach, I tried a bottom-up, common-law angle. In other words, are there any concrete examples of objections being raised to a journalist's reuse of his own work? If so, how seriously were the objections taken?

As it turns out, the answers are "yes" and "very." In April 2004, the Houston Chronicle suspended sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz for recycling without attribution a piece he had written for another paper. A few months later, the Miami Herald actually terminated arts critic Octavio Roca of the Miami Herald for reusing several reviews, again without attribution, he had first published in other papers.

The Chronicle had this to say about Herskowitz:
A Mickey Herskowitz column published in the Sunday, March 21 Chronicle was virtually identical to one he wrote for the Houston Post in 1990. This is a clear violation of journalism standards and the writer has been suspended.

Herskowitz's column about legendary basketball coach John Wooden contained little new information and many duplicative phrases. A further examination also found other examples of short passages in Post columns that later appeared in the Chronicle.

While this is not plagiarism, it is bad form. The Chronicle believes that readers deserve original work. Columnists often draw from earlier writing, but anything previously reported or quoted should be labeled as such. What our writer did was wrong and we apologize.
And here is what the Herald had to say about Roca's case:
In the past week, we parted ways with a talented arts writer and critic, Octavio Roca, who had produced several articles for The Herald that had been copied substantially from those he had written for newspapers where he previously worked.

When confronted, he sought to justify his recycling by likening himself to a college professor who delivers the same lecture to different students. And he argued that, because he was repeating his own words, he hadn't committed plagiarism, which is the theft of another's work.

But that rationale stood reason upside down. A reporter is less akin to a professor than to a student who is assigned to research a subject and to return with a report. The lazy student who submits the same term paper to satisfy the requirements of different courses would certainly be flunked in both classes. Such ''self plagiarism'' violates the fundamental expectation that, in a learning environment, all work must be original.

In this newsroom we have another term: breaking faith with readers, who expect that the articles in The Herald are fresh and timely unless it's otherwise made clear.
The Herald has also updated its Ethics Guidelines on plagiarism:
NEVER plagiarize. Never. Give credit when you use the work of others. Readers expect work appearing in The Herald to be original. You shouldn’t, for instance, recycle work you've published elsewhere and present it as original in The Herald.
By Wednesday morning, January 5, I still hadn't heard back from the Strib's Parry or even received an acknowledgment of my e-mail (not to be churlish, but given that anyone using Microsoft Outlook can, in about 30 seconds, set it up to generate automatic responses like "I'll be out of the office until X," is it too much to ask that the e-mail box of a newspaper's self-styled reader's representative have a similar mechanism in place so that readers can be assured that their correspondence has been received?). So I sent another e-mail. This time I did get a response. Parry noted that the high volume of inquiries precludes an individual response to each one (understandable, and I wouldn't trade jobs with her for all the money in the world; still . . . anything wrong with automated acknowledgments?). Then she characterized the December 31 column as a "follow-up" and concluded that, as such, it wasn't recycling.

I responded with a long e-mail relating much of what I set forth above. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that much of that material and the material which follows in this post is taken en masse or in substance from my e-mails to Kate Parry. This post is the first time I've actually published it; but still, just so you know.) Parry responded again. She said that she takes "accusations of plagiarism very, very seriously" but that this wasn't plagiarism because Coleman had reported some new information and "confirmed background previously published on the case."

Here was my parry (sorry, sorry; couldn't resist):
I'm not sure why the fact that Coleman spoke again to Peek's husband and son and quoted them in the Dec. 31 column would give him license to fill the rest of that column with previously published material without (and this is really the crux of the matter) telling the reader that this material was previously published. Also, I would think that the best source on (say) Dr. Horrigan would be Dr. Horrigan, not Peek's relatives. Did Coleman talk to Dr. Horrigan again? There is nothing in the Dec. 31 column to indicate that he did; on the contrary, the fact that the quote from Dr. Horrigan is virtually identical to the one appearing in the Pioneer Press column suggests that he didn't.

It might be helpful to step back from the rather ominous word "plagiarism" and consider exactly what it is about plagiarism that's objectionable. In the typical case--that is, when one writer uses another writer's work--I'd say there are two problems: there is a theft (suffered by the true writer) and there is a misrepresentation of originality (suffered by the reader). When a writer reuses his own work, the problem of theft disappears, but the problem of misrepresentation doesn't.

Moreover, there is a very simple remedy for the misrepresentation--simply tell the reader that the material was previously published. Or, as Roy Peter Clark puts it, "Such exhumation should be done with the permission of the newspaper in which the story first appeared and with a note of explanation to the reader." Or, as the Houston Chronicle puts it, "Columnists often draw from earlier writing, but anything previously reported or quoted should be labeled as such." Or, as the Miami Herald's Ethical Guidelines put it, "Readers expect work appearing in The Herald to be original. You shouldn’t, for instance, recycle work you've published elsewhere and present it as original in The Herald."

At the end of the day, I think I'm with Clark in seeing this as a "low-grade ethical problem," and I suspect that the severity of the Chronicle's and Herald's punishments of Roca and Herskowitz stemmed at least in part from a post-Jayson-Blair hyper-fastidiousness. But a low-grade ethical problem is not the same thing as no ethical problem at all. Coleman's Dec. 31 column gave the impression that it was based entirely on original reporting and writing; this impression was false. Would the column have been *worse* somehow if the readers had been told that it was partly based on previously published material? And if, as you say, you admire Roy Peter Clark's work, is there some identifiable reason why the Star Tribune's policy should differ from his on this issue?
Parry responded again, but she addressed neither of the two questions which ended my e-mail and which I continue to think are the key ones. Instead she claimed that I was arguing that he "just" lifted material from a previous column in a different newspaper (I think it's clear that Coleman didn't "just" do this and that I'm not arguing that he did) and that "each sentence, quote or paragraph" should be labelled as new or old (a reductio ad absurdum that neither I nor anyone else would seriously advocate).

Now I was getting a little peeved. Here is the bulk of my response:
I think you are creating straw men. My position is very simple:

(1) Any objective observer who read both the Dec. 31 Star Tribune column and the earlier Pioneer Press column would conclude that a substantial portion of the Dec. 31 column--NOT all, but also NOT a de minimis amount--bore a very close resemblance to material from the Pioneer Press column.

(2) NOWHERE does the Dec. 31 column divulge the existence of the prior column.

(3) This creates a misleading impression.

(4) The misleading impression would have been easily and completely dispelled by including SOMEWHERE in the column--NOT in "each sentence, quote or paragraph," just ONCE--a note that Coleman had written about Peek before, either in the text of the column itself (e.g., "I first wrote about Peek a few years ago. Her story deserves to be shared again.") or in a postscript (e.g., "This column is based in part on previously published material.")

Do you disagree with any of these four points? If so, why?

Also, I think there is no difference between my position and those taken by Roy Peter Clark, the Houston Chronicle, and the Miami Herald. Do you disagree? If so, why?
Parry responded again, but again refused to address what I thought then and still think now are the key questions. Instead she said we were "going in circles" (which we were, though I think the fault lay with her on that count) and that the time had come for her to turn her attention to other matters.

If we boil this all down, I think there are three possible conclusions. (1) This was not an ethical problem, either because it's never an ethical problem (not a particularly defensible position, but one that some have taken) or because it wasn't an ethical problem in this particular case (because Coleman did some original work; this would seem to be Parry's position). (2) This was a minor ethical problem, one that would have been easily avoided by simply disclosing the prior work (my position--and, it seems to me, the general position of Roy Peter Clark, the Houston Chronicle, and the Miami Herald). (3) This was a major ethical problem, warranting some sort of discipline (the position of the Houston Chronicle and the Miami Herald as applied to the cases of Herskowitz and Roca--cases which, I hasten to emphasize, are distinguishably more severe in that both writers appear to have done little or no original work in their later pieces).

I think I argued cogently for conclusion (2), and I think Parry argued not very cogently for conclusion (1). Still, I could be wrong and she could be right. I don't pretend to be an expert--is my analysis missing something one way or the other? I throw it open to the blogosphere.


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