Opinion

Jack Shafer

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

Why shouldn’t acts of plagiarism committed online be preserved online for study and enlightenment? Publishers don’t attempt to collect and destroy the newspapers, magazines or books they sell if they are later found to contain works of plagiarism. Nor do the copyright cops invade libraries to snip from the newspaper microfilm rolls the frames that are later discovered to have contained plagiarized material. We’ve wisely agreed that instances of print plagiarism should be preserved for study and for re-judgment in case the accused is innocent – and yes, also for fingerpointing.

NPR isn’t the only publication stoking the memory hole this summer. The Wall Street JournalHuffington Post and Yale’s New Journal deleted pieces by Liane Membis from their websites last month after elements of her work were shown to have been fabricated, as this story by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon explained. The Hearst-owned New Canaan News recently fired Paresh Jha for fabricating sources and quotes in more than two dozen stories, which the publication has removed from its website. Even those bad boys at tech ‘n’ gadget site Gizmodo briefly indulged the instinct to hide their embarrassment this week by deep-sixing a flawed report on Apple before coming to their senses and reposting the piece with a correction and an apology for their self-censoring ways.

Poynter chat: Should journalists support Trayvon Martin, Gov. Walker recall?

Mar 28, 2012 16:07 UTC

Reuters columnist Jack Shafer will discuss Gannett’s response to journalists who supported the Gov. Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin, as well as how ESPN handled the Trayvon Martin situation, specifically by dropping the ban that prevented its staff from publishing photos of themselves wearing hoodies.

The chat, hosted by Poynter, will feature feedback from Twitter users who submit their analysis and commentary by using the hashtag #poynterchats.

The chat begins at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Click here for more on this chat from Poynter.org

My Romenesko verdict: no harm, no foul

Jack Shafer
Nov 12, 2011 00:10 UTC

Media columnist Jim Romenesko—who was scheduled to depart his full-time position at the Poynter Institute at the end of the year, anyway—vacated it abruptly yesterday after his boss, Julie Moos, publicly criticized his “incomplete” methods of attributing other journalists’ copy in his summaries of their work.

For those who haven’t followed the story—and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, because it’s so inside baseball it’s inside the laces of the ball—Romenesko has been writing a Web-based cheat sheet about the news business since 1999. The column, which the non-profit Poynter Institute picked up in 2000, has been an indispensable destination for journalists and civilians interested in the media. (Interests declared: Romenesko has cited my work many times since 1999. For the last 10 weeks, Poynter has been paying me to participate in weekly, hour-long Web chats with readers.)

In declaring a “pattern of incomplete attribution,” Moos pointed to a recent example from Romenesko’s work in which he ran whole sentences from a Chicago Tribune story in his summary of it without placing the words in quotation marks or block quotation to indicate its exact provenance.

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