Once-Stung ‘Seattle Times’ Unveils Plagiarism Policy

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Stung by the high-profile revelation last summer that its business writer had lifted material for his column, The Seattle Times yesterday announced the results of a newsroom committee’s effort to develop guidelines on plagiarism and attribution.

“The group came up with what could be an industry model,” Executive Editor Mike Fancher wrote in the “Inside The Seattle Times” column headlined, “Some straight talk on our plagiarism policy.”

Among the guidelines is a plea for editors to “practice what some papers call ‘skeptical’ editing.” Editors should not only ask questions about where reporters got their information, but should not hesitate to demand to see documents and check references, the policy, titled “Seattle Times Plagiarism Guidelines” says.

The full report is available online at the Times’ site.

Much of the 3,400-word policy takes a Baltimore Catechism approach, with questions and answers about gray areas such as the legitimacy of a writer using wording he has used before — “Lifting language from one of your own old stories may be laziness, but it’s not plagiarism,” the policy says — or recycling material from another Times writer: “This can be more problematic,” it says.

In his column on the guidelines, Fancher said the “committee began its work last year after the Times was stunned by a case of plagiarism.” In August 2004, acting on a reader’s tip, the Times investigated allegations that Associate Editor Stephen H. Dunphy, a veteran with 37 years at the paper, had lifted material for his daily business column. Dunphy later resigned, saying the pressure to fill the column led to the plagiarism.

The guideline committee — part of the paper’s Ethics and Standards committee — focuses much of the policy on the proper attribution of material.

“Once we came up with our definition of plagiarism — and agreed it is indefensible — our subcommittee moved pretty quickly to the grayer, less clear-cut questions staffers raised,” the committee wrote. “We found ourselves talking more about appropriate attribution than plagiarism. We decided they?re really two sides of the same coin.”

Here’s one example from the policy:

“Q. If I decide I need to attribute information gleaned from the clips, how should I do it?

“A. You might do it in the text of the story itself. An obit, for example, might attribute information from an old story about the deceased this way: ‘When The Times profiled him in 1934, Rogers said he?d never met a man he didn?t like.’ To a great degree, the level of attribution depends on the extent of the material used, and its significance in the story. Taglines are another possibility. Discuss whether attribution is needed, and how it should be done, with your editor.”

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