‘Freep’ Editor: Lack of Attribution Is My Fault

By: Joe Strupp

Although Mitch Albom and several other columnists at the Detroit Free Press routinely used quotes from other sources without attribution, according to a lengthy report in today’s paper, Editor and Publisher Carole Leigh Hutton will not dish out any punishment, saying she is to blame for not clearly stating the paper’s policy on such actions.

“I didn’t realize that I had failed to be clear about the policy,” Hutton told E&P Monday. “There will be no discipline on anyone because it is clearly a newsroom-wide problem. The blame is on me. I have to take it.”

Meanwhile, one of the four investigative reporters who worked on the month-long review of Albom’s past work contends that the headline and lead of today’s story on the investigation may have misled readers into thinking Albom, cleared of some concerns, had not committed other journalistic sins.

David Zeman, whose byline appears on the Page One story along with three co-writers, took issue with the headline, “Albom probe shows no pattern of deception,” and the lead, which focused on the paper finding “no evidence of problems similar to an April 3 column” in which Albom wrote about a basketball game before it happened.

But most of the report, in fact, detailed numerous examples of Albom and other columnists using quotes from other sources without attribution. “I think some people may find a disconnect between what the headline says and what the story below lays out,” Zeman told E&P.

Zeman also contends that the investigation found that Albom more frequently used quotes without credit than did other columnists. “I think it is unfair to give the impression that any of our columnists have been shown to be lifting quotes to the extent that Mitch has,” Zeman said. “I would hate to see all of our columnists lumped in to the same group as Albom.”

He also said the original lead had been an anecdotal account of Albom attending the home opener of the Detroit Tigers, which he had to leave early to get to the studio for his radio show. He later pulled quotes for a column from television and radio interviews but did not disclose that fact in his column. The anecdote eventually ended up down in the story, replaced by the hard-news lead.

Hutton contends that the news was that the investigation had found no other examples of wrongdoing similar to the April 3 column, not that several other examples of unattributed quotes had been found. “We discussed the attribution issue and that it was not unique to Mitch Albom,” she said about the final story. “We presented it to be as accurate as possible.” She also said she believes the headline is fair.

The story detailed several examples of Albom using quotes from other news outlets without clearly stating where he had gotten the comments. In addition, two instances were noted of Albom writing about games he watched on television. Hutton said the problem appears to be that columnists and editors did not realize that the policy requiring attribution be given for all quotes from other sources also extended to columnists.

“There are a number of columnists and editors who believed there was a difference,” Hutton told E&P. “When I see it happen across a number of departments, that is not something that an individual is doing wrong.”

Albom did not return calls seeking comment. But, in a statement to E&P e-mailed today, he defended is work and supported efforts to tighten attribution controls.

“I have always been proud of my journalism and I am glad that this long investigation has validated my work and my reputation. I thank the readers who have always stood by me,” he wrote in part. “I expect the Free Press will clarify and tighten its policy on quote attribution and I — and my colleagues at the Free Press — will comply willingly. I know in the end, we will all be better journalists for this.

None of the other co-writers of today’s story responded to requests for comment.

Zeman and Hutton also disagreed on another element of the story, which indicated that quotes Albom lifted from other sources appeared “worded slightly differently from how they appeared elsewhere in the media, with quotes seeming to be livelier in some cases.”

Hutton contends that those differences were based on errors in transcribing that often occur because a reporter mistakenly takes down a quote incorrectly. But Zeman says those were clear examples of Albom changing quotes. “We are talking about him lifting quotes from other publications and they are different in his column,” Zeman says. “Anyone in journalism would see that as a problem.”

Still, Hutton contends that she is to blame for not making the policy clear and plans to institute efforts to make sure all staffers know the rules. She declined to share the changes with E&P, saying she wants to present them to the staff at a meeting later today. She also plans to inform readers in a column for Tuesday’s paper.

Hutton had previously disciplined Albom and four other staffers for the original April 3 column, but still declines to reveal the punishment

When asked if this incident indicated Albom may be spending too much time on his other responsibilities, such as a radio show, TV appearances, and books, Hutton declined to say. “I think that’s his call,” she said, but added, “He knows what our expectations are, and he is going to have to do the same attribution as everyone else does.”

She also declined to say if she should be reprimanded for allowing the policy to remain unclear. “I can’t make that call,” she told E&P.

But Hutton noted that the entire investigation had shown her staff what it is like to be the subject of a news story, perhaps giving them some insight. “I hate being covered in my own paper or any paper,” she said. “Even accurately.”

Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of the School of Journalism at Michigan State University, who advised the paper on its investigation, said today’s report was accurate and not misleading. “It does appear this is a problem with attribution, but it is not [Albom’s] problem alone,” she told E&P. “I think they did an exhaustive effort to find out what was going on.”

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