By: Allan Wolper
Plagiarism and journalism. Two isms that seem inseparable these days.
The painful relationship is riveting Midwestern ethics circles where Steve Penn, a former longtime metro columnist for The Kansas City (Mo.) Star, is suing the newspaper for defamation.
The Star fired Penn July 12, 2011 because it said he had been publishing press releases verbatim in his column — a form of plagiarism that has plagued the news media for ages. Then last July, Penn fired back, filing his suit against the Star and corporate owner, McClatchy Newspapers, Inc., alleging his editors knew all about his pilfering and that plagiarizing press releases was common practice at the paper.
“We believe the evidence is going to show that it (copying press releases without attribution) was widely done by various reporters at the Star,” Penn’s lawyer Lyle M. Gregory told The Pitch, an alternative newspaper in Kansas City.
Is this making you snore? Another tired column about journalism ethics. Even worse, about press releases. C’mon. What’s the big deal? The media are downsizing every digital second. It’s a miracle reporters have the time to cut and paste up press releases, let alone insert them in their stories and columns.
Newspapers, especially in smaller markets, run pieces with the contact numbers of public relations firms. News organizations, including E&P, publish items that are even labeled press releases. Book excerpts are reprinted like paid advertisements.
Fareed Zakaria was suspended (then later reinstated) from Time Magazine and CNN for stealing a story from The New York Times. Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker added a new wrinkle to the debate when he used an old freelance trick — publishing the exact same copy to various publications, a form of self plagiarism. Politico writer Kendra Marr was busted as a serial plagiarist. NPR intern Ahmad Shafi was caught cribbing a piece from the London Review of Books. On and on.
So why bother with press release thievery? Because it is a slippery slope. The recent list of plagiarists — cheaters, if you might — lifted pieces that were in the main confirmed as fact.
Plagiarism is the obsession of journalists.
Lifting press releases verbatim and publishing them without attribution is a sin against readers. It is a violation of the public trust that media love to talk about. It gives the impression that the paper is not an independent voice. It calls into question every other story in the paper.
That’s why Penn’s allegations, if proven, would seriously damage the credibility of the Star. It would also violate the clearly stated Code of Ethics in the Star and the Code of Conduct spelled out on the McClatchy corporate website.
“Credibility is the Star’s greatest asset,” according to the Star’s Code of Ethics. “For that reason alone, editorial employees must make every effort to fully identify the news source in a story or behind one.”
The paper’s section on plagiarism is even more specific: “Do not borrow the work of others. Plagiarism includes the wholesale lifting of someone else’s writing, research, or original concepts without attribution.”
The editors at Star aren’t talking, citing the lawsuit, and Penn is letting his legal papers speak for him. But everyone else in the Kansas City media world and on blogs and websites across the country are weighing in.
The Public Relations Society of America said press releases are supposed to be copied, a position echoed by Kansas City’s public relations community. It is a given that they are not going to blow the whistle on a reporter reprising their copy.
“I write them so they will be published in a newspaper,” John Landsberg, president of Bottom Line Communications, a former sports writer for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and frequent blogger on Kansas City media, told me. “No PR person in his right mind would complain about having his copy lifted.”
Ryan Gerding, vice president of INK Inc., PR agrees, but added another wrinkle to the discussion. “We want a third party — like a newspaper — to endorse our client’s point of view. However, if that third party’s credibility is called into question, then our client is hurt as well.”
Charles Davis, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, said he would be surprised and disappointed if Penn can prove that other reporters at the Star were guilty of promotional plagiarism.
“If you are in PR, you are hoping, please God, that the paper will use your releases,” he told me. “However, it is unethical for a reporter to present a press release as his own work.”
In a July 2011 unbylined story, the Star publicly divulged what Penn had done. The paper reported that Penn, a metro columnist since 2000 and a reporter at the paper since July 1980, had hijacked public relations copy at least a dozen times since 2008.
“We value Steve’s many years of service to the Star,” said Mike Fannin, editor and vice president of the Star, in the article. “Unfortunately, in these instances over an extended period of time, Steve made some serious errors of judgment that we concluded were clear violations of our ethics policy. Regrettably that means we have to part ways.”
But the story had some obvious holes in it, as noted by Rick Nichols, a frequent poster to John Landsberg’s media blog: “Why was the plagiarism allowed to continue as long as it apparently did? Was anyone in management ever disciplined for this failure to intervene earlier?”
And one more question from me: Who blew the whistle on Penn?
Meanwhile, the suit got off to a rocky start when reporters noted that the court papers were said to be filed in Jackson County, Kan., rather than Jackson County, Mo., that the name of the paper’s editor was spelled wrong, and that Penn was described as a sports columnist rather than a metro columnist.
Then there is this:
Unless Penn backs off, this case is going to be heard in court. Why? Because the Star will not want to settle the case. That would be seen as a tacit admission that Penn was right when he claimed that he wasn’t the only one pilfering public relations copy.
Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at the Newark campus of Rutgers University and the host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a Wednesday night broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.