By: Joe Strupp
The Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette’s investigation into plagiarism by fired sportswriter Ken Powers will likely continue for several weeks, as editors go beyond his columns to review “several hundred stories” he wrote during the past football season, Editor Harry Whitin told E&P today.
“I’m not sure where it’s all going to take us,” said Whitin, who also plans to expand staff training on the paper’s seven-year-old anti-plagiarism policy. “We have been using Internet search engines and taking chunks of passages from [Powers’] columns, but I’m not convinced we have reached the end of that.”
A day after firing Powers, a 20-year T&G veteran and the paper’s Patriots beat writer, Whiten said editors have much more work ahead as they begin to look into the bulk of Powers’ stories from the past season, while also offering closer scrutiny of columns that have already revealed at least six plagiarism offenses since September.
“He has written a lot more than that over the years, and we have not begun to tackle it all,” he added. “Whether we go beyond [Powers’ work from] this season is open to question.”
In the meantime, a number of newsroom staffers are complaining that the paper did not properly inform readers as the investigation was unfolding this past week.
The paper first learned of the allegations against Powers on Monday, following tips from two readers who said his Jan. 29 column included several elements of a previous Sports Illustrated column. The allegations were serious enough that editors summoned Powers back from Jacksonville, Fla., where he was covering pre-Super Bowl activities.
But the paper did not run anything about its investigation until Wednesday, when a short editor’s note ran on the back of the A section. A second note appeared inside the sports section yesterday , and the lengthy story about Powers’ firing, which occurred late Thursday, was placed on the front of today’s sports section.
Both editor’s notes ran on the main page of the paper’s Web site each day, but the Friday story ran only on the main sports Web page.
“We probably should have placed this on Page One,” said one staff reporter who requested anonymity. “We gave it less-prominent coverage than The Boston Globe and The New York Times.”
Clive McFarlane, who covers education, agreed. “It is such a transgression, I didn’t see it as a sports story. I think it should have been front and center,” he told E&P. “It concerns what we do as journalists.”
Whitin defended the decision and said the initial editor’s note ran in he space used for corrections, while the sports section was used in the two other cases because that was where most of Powers’ original stories ran.
“It seems to me that we hung out all of our dirty laundry,” Whitin insisted. “It certainly wasn’t hidden.”
Still, the coverage irked many staffers. “We should have made it more apparent to readers how serious we took it,” another reporter said. “I don’t think a small item indicated the gravity with which we took this.”
When Whitin first met with reporters, according to one source, he indicated that the paper would be as open with readers as possible. “One of the promises was that we would be ahead of the story,” said a third reporter who spoke with E&P. “That wasn’t the case. It is understandable that they didn’t want to jump the gun, but this turned into a national story.”
Reporter Jackie Reis also questioned the location of the first editor’s note, but she said the last story was fine on the sports page. “I was OK with that,” she said. “I think they handled it well.”
Dianne Williamson, a well-known T&G columnist, said she had heard from some staffers that the placement of the coverage was not popular. “We have raised the issue if it was the proper place,” she told E&P. “But the important issue is that [the investigation] was handled properly and appropriately.”
Local journalism educators offered mixed reactions as well. Bob Zelnick, a professor at Boston University, believed the placement was not as important as the way the paper handled the issue. “I don’t think they kept it a secret,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with the handling of it.”
But for Stephen Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, such allegations against a top football writer in New England just days before the Patriots play in the Super Bowl is big news. “I don’t think it goes as far as it ought to,” he said of the paper’s self-coverage. “It is significant when you are reporting on something as big in the minds of the readers as the Patriots. It is a bigger black eye.”