Recent allegations of plagiarism and fabrication leveled against journalism school scholars by students have ignited heated debate in the news industry over the definition of plagiarism and appropriate punishments for such transgressions.
On Nov. 9, 2007, the Missourian of Columbia, Mo. cancelled a column written by University of Missouri School of Journalism Professor Emeritus John Merrill after determining that Merrill had used two quotations in his column that were previously printed in a student newspaper, without attribution.
The 83-year-old Merrill, a renowned journalism ethics scholar, has taught for decades at institutions around the world, according to a Nov. 12, 2007 Associated Press (AP) story. Merrill is also a former director of the Louisiana State University journalism school, a member of the Louisiana and Iowa journalism halls of fame, and the recipient of the Missouri Honor Medal for distinguished journalism service.
In his Nov. 3, 2007 weekly column for the Missourian, a community newspaper affiliated with the University of Missouri, Merrill questioned the need for the university’s recent establishment of a new women’s and gender studies department. Merrill’s column included quotations that he had taken from an earlier story appearing Oct. 5, 2007 in the University of Missouri’s student newspaper, The Maneater.
According to a story in the Missourian published Dec. 8, 2007, the student author of The Maneater story informed an associate dean at the School of Journalism that Merrill’s column included quotations from her story without crediting her original story. The December 8 Missourian story identified the quotations used by Merrill as comments from a university faculty member and the dean of the University of Missouri College of Arts and Sciences discussing the new department of women’s and gender studies.
The student brought the matter to the attention of the Missourian’s executive editor, Tom Warhover. Warhover discussed the incident with Merrill, who subsequently sent Warhover a letter of apology, stating that this was “‘unintentional’ plagiarism.” Merrill added that he “was using [the quotations] as a springboard for my opinion. But I did it, and I’m sorry. Careless, I’ll admit, but not intentional.”
Merrill also noted that in years of writing “All these dozens and dozens of columns and some 30 books and innumerable magazine and newspaper articles ... never before have I been accused of plagiarism.” Statements from Merrill’s letter were printed in Warhover’s Nov. 9, 2007 online editor’s column available on the Missourian Web site, http://www.columbiamissourian.com. Warhover concluded in the column that Merrill had violated the newspaper’s standards and consequently the column had been cancelled.
The Missourian’s plagiarism policy prohibits authors from appropriating another author’s original words and quotations used in another author’s work without attribution. Three quotations in Merrill’s column, according to Warhover’s November 9 column, were taken from the student’s story in The Maneater. Missourian editors also reviewed all the columns Merrill had written in the past year and found that there were five other columns in which Merrill had used a quotation from another publication without credit to its source.
In a response to the cancellation of his column, entitled “Carelessness Is Not Plagiarism,” published in the Missourian on Nov. 14, 2007, Merrill wrote, “Certainly, if what I did is plagiarism, it was unintentional and could, at the most, be considered technical, not unethical.” He added that he had been “undoubtedly, careless” in omitting a cite to The Maneater as his source for the quotations, but stated that he looked upon the quotations as “news-facts” that are in the public domain.
Merrill also stated that he would not plagiarize intentionally. “Those who know me know that I would not steal anyone else’s writing,” he wrote. “First of all, I know it’s wrong, and secondly, I feel my own writing is probably much better.”
The Missourian’s decision to cancel Merrill’s column resulted in an outpouring of support for Merrill from journalists and commentators in articles and online forums, including the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a school and think tank for journalists, http://www.poynter.org.
Many commentators asserted that the cancellation of Merill’s column was unwarranted under the circumstances.
Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at the Washington & Lee University, defended Merrill in a letter dated Nov. 16, 2007, which was posted by Jim Romenesko on his media industry news blog “Romenesko,” available at http://www.poynter.org. “Having reviewed the various articles,” Wasserman wrote, “I have to say I think the ethical basis for [Merrill’s] dismissal was flimsy and the firing unwarranted.”
Wasserman asserted that under the circumstances, the “ethical requirement to attribute is debatable” because, he concluded, the comments Merrill quoted were “innocuous boilerplate from University of Missouri bureaucrats” that could arguably have been considered in the public domain.
“What is not debatable, in my opinion,” concluded Wasserman, “is the ethical requirement on the part of the Missourian’s management to show respect for a professor of genuine stature and bring proportionality to responding to an exceedingly minor instance where an optional courtesy was withheld.”
Roy Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, also defended Merrill in a post dated Nov. 28, 2007 on his blog “Writing Tools,” available at http://www.poynter.org. The post, entitled “The Plagiarism Trap: Is it Ethical to Shoot a Fly With a Bazooka?” stated that Merrill’s actions did not constitute plagiarism. Plagiarism, which Clark dubbed the “scarlet letter of the literary world,” should be reserved for the most serious cases of malpractice. Merrill’s punishment was far out of proportion to his violation, Clark said.
“What we are left with instead,” Clark concluded, “is a stain on a scholar whose work over decades has been judged original, and a good editor who looks more than a little like those Puritans who pinned a scarlet ‘A’ on ladies suspected of adultery.”
Gene Foreman, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and a professor of journalism at Pennsylvania State University, said that lifting quotations from another story is a “lesser transgression” than plagiarism, according to a Missourian story published Dec. 8, 2007. Stating that the column evidenced no “malicious intent” to plagiarize, Foreman concluded that Merrill was simply giving the reader background on the new department at the university.
On Dec. 8, 2007, the Missourian also published a commentary authored by four faculty members from the Missouri School of Journalism: Daryl Moen, George Kennedy, Jacqui Banaszynski, and Charles Davis, who stated that Merrill’s punishment was too harsh. His lack of intent to defraud in this context, argued the authors, should have been a mitigating factor in determining his punishment.
However, the professors asserted that the allegation of plagiarism, if not the punishment, was accurate. “[B]y any reasonable definition,” they asserted, “the use of material gathered by another writer, without crediting that writer, is plagiarism.”
Other scholars contend that the Missourian’s editors share the blame for Merrill’s misappropriation of the student reporter’s material. Professor Linda Steiner of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and Deborah Kornmiller, reader advocate of the Arizona Daily Star, stated that Merrill was careless in his failure to credit the student reporter, but added that the Missourian’s editors should have been more careful as well, according to the December 8 Missourian story.
“Merrill’s editors and those around him could and should have saved him. Surely they read the original piece. When a columnist writes something that is sure to rile what might be considered a sacred cow, I would expect there to be a conversation with the writer,” Kornmiller said.
Some of the reader comments posted on the Missourian’s Web site at the conclusion of a Dec. 8, 2007 story reviewing the debate about the column’s cancellation demonstrate that some readers thought Merrill had committed plagiarism and supported the paper’s decision to cancel Merrill’s column. The reader comments are available at the newspaper’s Web site, http://www.columbiamissourian.com.
One commenter, identifying himself as J. Todd Foster, managing editor of the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier, posted a comment on Dec. 11, 2007, stating that he would probably have fired Merrill for plagiarism, concluding, “I don't know too many editors in these lean, do-more-with-less times who would have time on deadline to question the sourcing of a distinguished 80-year-old professor, let alone assume he had taken someone else’s quotes without attribution. Some journalists are expected to be self-policemen.”
Northwestern University Journalism Student Alleges Dean Fabricated Quotations in Column
A Northwestern University student newspaper columnist set off a controversy when he alleged that the dean of the high-profile Medill School of Journalism fabricated quotes in an alumni magazine. An investigation of the incident by the university provost’s office concluded that the dean did not make up the quotes, but some students and faculty continued to question the dean’s commitment to ethical reporting principles.
In his Feb. 11, 2008 column, Daily Northwestern columnist David Spett, a Northwestern senior, alleged Dean John Lavine fabricated three anonymous quotations from students in columns titled “Letter from the Dean” that he wrote for two issues of the school’s alumni magazine in 2007. Spett wrote that he became especially suspicious about the phrasing of an anonymous student quotation that appeared in Lavine’s column in the spring 2007 issue of Medill magazine, praising an undergraduate advertising class.
Spett wrote that he had contacted all of the 29 students in the class and asked them whether they had made the following statement, which Lavine attributed to an unnamed Medill junior: “I came to Medill because I want to inform people and make things better. Journalism is the best way for me to do that, but I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken, and I learned many things in it that apply as much to truth-telling in journalism as to this campaign to save teenage drivers.” Spett said all of the students denied making the statement, even when he promised not to print their names.
Another quote in Lavine’s column, attributed to a sophomore, concludes, “This is the most exciting my education has ever been. ...” The spring 2007 issue of Medill magazine is available online at http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/alumni/medillmagazine.aspx?id=64439.
According to a Feb. 12, 2008 post on the blog “news bites,” which is available on the Chicago Reader’s Web site, http://blogs.chicagoreader.com/news-bites/2008/02/12/did-medills-dean-lavine-make-quote, Lavine has aroused the ire of some Medill faculty and alumni with his attempts to closely integrate Medill’s journalism and marketing programs. The anonymous student quotations praise the class’ multi-disciplinary approach, the blog reported.
Spett confronted the dean about the anonymous quotations during a tape-recorded interview, according to the February 11 column. Lavine told Spett that the “I sure felt good” quotation had come from a student e-mail, but he could not identify the student’s name. “I wouldn’t have quoted it if I didn’t have it,” he said.
Lavine told the Chicago Tribune for a February 14 story that the quotations in the spring 2007 column “came from real people.” He could not remember whether the quotations were from e-mails or from conversations, but added that he would have deleted any student e-mails concerning the class. Lavine also added that anonymous quotations were appropriate in the context of a dean’s letter in an alumni magazine. “Context is all-important. I wasn’t doing a news story. I wasn’t covering the news,” he said. “When I write news stories, I am as careful and thorough about sources as anyone you will find. ... This is not a news story. This is a personal letter.”
Seventeen Medill faculty members signed a letter dated Feb. 19, 2008 calling on the dean to respond immediately to the allegations with a complete accounting of his conduct in order to conclude what has become, the letter stated, “an embarrassment to Northwestern and to Medill.” The professors added that “Accuracy and truthfulness are non-negotiable requirements for any material prepared for publication in any forum, including in marketing and public relations.” The e-mail was posted on Romenesko and is available at http://poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=13144.
A student and alumni petition expressing concern about the incident was signed by 240 students and graduates and given to Lavine, the provost, and the university president, according to a March 3 Daily Northwestern story.
In an e-mail to the Medill community dated Feb. 20, 2008, Lavine stated, “I have been in journalism for more than 40 years as a reporter, editor, publisher and educator. I do not make up quotes.” Lavine apologized for exercising poor judgment concerning student quotations. He maintained that they had come from a student e-mail or from notes he had taken but not saved, and said that attempts to retrieve e-mails he deleted last year were unsuccessful. The letter was posted on the Romenesko blog at http://poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=13152 .
The incident was referred to the provost’s office at Northwestern, and a review by Provost Daniel Linzer and an ad hoc committee composed of three Medill alumni concluded in a Feb. 29, 2008 e-mail to the Medill community that there was “ample evidence” showing that the quotations Lavine used in his columns were “consistent with sentiment[s] students express about the course in course evaluations.” The e-mail was posted on the Romenesko blog at http://poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=13167.
The results of the provost’s review did not satisfy Medill professor David Protess, who told the Daily Northwestern for its March 3 story that the provost inaccurately concluded that there was no evidence to support the allegation that Lavine fabricated student quotations.
“I am not alleging that the dean fabricated quotes,” Protess said. “I am alleging that it is inaccurate to say there is no evidence that he did not fabricate quotes.”
Linzer affirmed his faith in Lavine in the February 29 e-mail, stating “I have determined that no violation of University policy has occurred in connection with the Spring 2007 ‘Letter from the Dean.’ I have confidence in Dean Lavine to continue to lead the Medill School of Journalism.”
Protess said that such reassurances were not adequate, according to the Daily Northwestern. “It is a hard and fast rule in journalism that when quotation marks are used, they should reflect what a source actually said, not merely their quote-unquote ‘sentiments,’” Protess said. “If simply capturing the mood of unnamed sources is good enough to be used in quotation marks, then our standards as a journalism school are slipping.”
Lavine had attributed the quotation in which a student stated “I sure felt good about this class” to an unidentified junior. The Daily Northwestern reported March 3 that Protess and Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn interviewed the five juniors in the marketing class, and all denied giving the quote to Lavine.
– Amba Datta
Silha Research Assistant