‘Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch’ Fires Photog for ‘Visual Plagiarism’

By: Daryl Lang

(PDN) The Richmond Times-Dispatch fired a photographer for copying an idea from another newspaper and printed a front-page apology, but has declined to explain exactly how the mistake happened.

The cover of the Times-Dispatch’s Metro Business section on Aug. 22 bore an obvious resemblance to the Dec. 22 cover of Style Weekly, a Richmond alternative newspaper.

Both covers, hyping business profiles of the same Richmond-area caramel maker, showed a stack of three candy pieces against a white background. Stacking food against white seamless is a familiar convention in still life photography, but the covers were similar in other ways. The Style Weekly headline was “Sweet return,” while the Times-Dispatch headline was “A Sweet Return.”

The publisher of the Style Weekly noticed the similarities the day the Times-Dispatch section came out, and later had a conversation with the publisher of the Times-Dispatch, said Jason Roop, editor of the Style Weekly.

Times-Dispatch managing editor Louise Seals apologized in a front-page note on Thursday, and said in an article Sunday that the photographer responsible had been dismissed.

“We learned that the photographer had seen the Style photo while at the candy company, and was told of the similarity, but submitted the picture anyway as original work,” Seals wrote. “That is visual plagiarism and that is why we have dismissed the photographer.”

Beyond the photo and cover headline, several phrases in the Times-Dispatch article were similar to parts of the Style Weekly article by Edwin Slipek, Jr.

In the original article, Slipek wrote: “For most of its existence, the Velatis confectionery store and kitchen was located at 620 Ninth St. N.W. in downtown Washington, D.C.”

The Times-Dispatch article contained the sentence: “For much of its existence, the Velatis store and kitchen were at 620 Ninth St. NW in downtown Washington.”

The writer of the Times-Dispatch article was a college intern who has since left the paper, according to Seals’ article.

Seals wrote in her article that the project would have benefited from more careful editing. She wrote, “For instance, one photo was strikingly different from all the others shot for the assignment. Historical background was unusually detailed for this type of article.”

But Seals didn’t explain how parts of a story, a cover photo concept, and a headline — elements typically created by several different members of a newspaper staff — could have all cribbed from the same competing publication. Seals also declined to say whether anyone other than the photographer had been disciplined.

Contacted by PDN, Seals said, “I think I’ve said everything I want to say in the article.”

Roop says Style Weekly is satisfied with the Times-Dispatch’s response.

“We are definitely pleased that they are so open and direct about it with their readers,” he says.

“You realize that this can happen in any newsroom,” he adds.

The original Style Weekly cover was photographed by staff photographer Scott Elmquist and designed by art director Jeffrey Bland, Roop says.

The Times-Dispatch cover was photographed by Cindy Blanchard, according to Roop.

Blanchard received an honorable mention in the Virginia News Photographers Association 2004 Photo of the Year contest for her work at the Times-Dispatch and previously worked for the Augusta Chronicle.

Attempts by PDN to contact Blanchard were unsuccessful.

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