Shortly after allegations surfaced on the Internet that veteran sportswriter Ron Borges had plagiarized passages of another reporter’s work in his weekly football column, The Boston Globe suspended Borges without pay for two months and barred the reporter from appearing on television and radio broadcasts during his suspension.
Allegations that Borges had lifted material from an article first published on Feb. 26, 2007 in The News Tribune, a Tacoma, Wash., daily, were first raised by the Web site www.coldhardfootballfacts.com. The Web site, which has criticized Borges’ journalistic credibility in the past, posted passages from Borges’ March 4 article and Mike Sando’s earlier article for The News Tribune and called on editors at the Globe to look into the matter.
After an investigation, the Globe discovered that Borges included material written by Sando in his weekly column featuring news and notes on the National Football League (NFL). Several passages of Borges’ column -- a commentary on the potential trade of Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson to the New England Patriots -- were taken directly from Sando’s article. A comparison of the two articles can be found online at http://www1.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=119393.
On March 6, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Borges used the material, without attribution, after it was posted on an online notes exchange frequented by sportswriters. According to Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan, the notes exchange is subscribed to by NFL reporters who share information and statistics with one another in advance of Sunday “notebook” columns that are published by many newspapers during the football season. But, Sullivan said, the exchanges are typically used by reporters to find background materials, not to directly copy the work of other reporters.
Passages from Sando’s article were posted to the online notes exchange and accessible to subscribers. According to an article written on March 6, 2007 by Globe reporter Michael Paulson, Borges was not aware that the material had previously been published and copied Sando’s article largely verbatim.
Although Borges acknowledged in his column that “material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources” were used in the report, Globe editor Martin Baron viewed Borges’ failure to properly attribute the material as plagiarism and suspended the reporter on March 5. News of the suspension appeared on the newspaper’s Web site, www.boston.com, later that day.
“The Globe does not tolerate plagiarism,” Baron said in the statement appearing on the newspaper’s Web site. “Extensive passages written by the Tacoma reporter were used verbatim in the column by Borges, and that is prohibited.”
Following the announcement, allegations arose that Borges may have plagiarized passages of a January 28 column from a column written by Alex Marvez of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on January 21. The Globe dismissed the accusation, stating that the two articles were “substantially different.” In an e-mail to The Boston Herald reporter Jessica Heslam, Globe spokesman Alfred Larkin stated that the newspaper “believe[s] that the brief similarities between the two columns, much of which is comprised of quotes, is covered by the disclaimer that runs at the bottom of the notes column.”
Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, disagreed. “It’s another case of plagiarism because if you look at that passage in question, more than 75 percent of it is identical,” McBride told Heslam.
Although Borges declined to comment on the suspension when asked by AP reporters and has not responded to further allegations of plagiarism, the Boston Newspaper Guild’s president, Dan Totten, told reporters that the union would stand by Borges.
“Ron Borges is a talented veteran of The Boston Globe sports pages whose work is of the highest caliber. Ron’s work is widely appreciated and respected within the sports journalism world. The Boston Newspaper Guild stands with Ron and we will defend him and see that justice prevails,” Totten said.
Totten later told the Boston Phoenix, an alternative newsweekly, that the suspension “seems far in excess [of] anything that’s been levied in similar cases.” However, Totten gave no indication that Borges would be challenging the suspension.
According to the Phoenix, that may be because Totten is “overstating” Borges’ case, noting that Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Jeff Jacoby were suspended after plagiarizing material in 1998 and 2000.
Unlike earlier cases, Borges’ suspension has prompted some media analysts and commentators to question the practice of notes exchanges among reporters. “At the heart of Ron Borges’ two month suspension from [The] Boston Globe for plagiarism is the shadowy world of the “notes exchange,” sports media blogger Dan Shanoff wrote on March 6 in response to the suspension.
“And shame on the reporters who can’t do their own research – and, perhaps even more, on the failure of leadership by sports editors whose inconsistent application of attribution in columns like these (and, more generally, whose lenient standards towards these ‘notes exchanges’) have allowed this system to reach its inevitable spot at the bottom of what has always been a slippery slope,” Shanoff concluded.
According to an article that appeared in the Phoenix on March 8, Sullivan told reporter Adam Reilly that, although it may not be prohibited, the use of notes-sharing systems at the Globe is being reassessed.
“We’re going to be discussing the whole idea of that, and we’re in the process,” Sullivan said. In light of Borges’ plagiarizing, Sullivan said, editors at the Globe are having “second thoughts about the way [they] do things.”
– Christopher Gorman, Silha Research Assistant