In February 2010, two high-profile plagiarism scandals involving a reporter for The New York Times and the chief investigative reporter for news website The Daily Beast resulted in the resignations of both journalists. Both men allegedly used language from other online news sources without acknowledgement or attribution, highlighting one of the potential pitfalls of web-based journalism.
Business Reporter Resigns from The New York Times amid Plagiarism Accusations
Zachery Kouwe, a reporter for The New York Times, resigned on Feb. 16, 2010, amid allegations that he reused language from other news sources without attribution in a number of business articles in The Times and in posts on The Times' DealBook blog.
An Editor's Note published with the corrections in the February 14 edition of The Times stated that Kouwe "appears to have improperly appropriated wording and passages published by other news organizations." The note said that Kouwe "reused language from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources without attribution or acknowledgment."
"Copying language directly from other news organizations without providing attribution - even if the facts are independently verified - is a serious violation of Times policy and basic journalistic standards," the note said. "It should not have occurred."
In a February 16 story, The New York Times reported that the controversy came to light when Robert Thomson, the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, sent a letter to editors of The Times saying that portions of a story Kouwe wrote February 5 were identical or nearly identical to a Journal article published online hours before. The Times editors investigated and found other examples of plagiarism by Kouwe, but the story did not specify how many.
Kouwe was initially suspended by The Times, and resigned on February 16. "The Times has dealt with this, as we said we would in our Editors' Note, consistent with our standards to protect the integrity of our journalism," Diane McNulty, a spokeswoman for the company, said in the February 16 Times story. "Beyond that, we don't comment on personnel issues."
The day he resigned, Kouwe gave an interview to The New York Observer, in which he said that he never knowingly plagiarized. "Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the [DealBook] blog," Kouwe said. "In the essence of speed, I'll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I'll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct
. . . I'll go back and rewrite everything," Kouwe said. "I was stupid and careless . . . and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that's what probably happened."
Kouwe started writing for The Times in 2008, according to the February 16 Observer story. Before working for The Times, Kouwe was a reporter for The New York Post and Dow Jones Newswires. He was one of several employees to start at The Times in a wave of hiring in an effort to staff blogs like DealBook, The Observer reported.
In a March 6 column, Times public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that although most of what Kouwe lifted was "pretty banal stuff, like background material," the practices were still considered unacceptable.
Hoyt also wrote that previous incidents involving Kouwe indicated that there was a problem. Dealbreaker, a rival business-news blog, and The Wall Street Journal had both complained previously about Kouwe lifting material from their websites without attribution, but at the time Andrew Ross Sorkin, the editor of DealBook, updated Kouwe's posts to give credit to the original reporting and considered the overlaps to be honest oversights on Kouwe's part.
"I think everybody looks back and says, yeah, there were warning signs," Times business editor Larry Ingrassia said in Hoyt's column. Ingrassia also said he would instruct his staff to tell him about every complaint about proper credit not being given.
Hoyt suggested that because of the fast-breaking and competitive nature of DealBook, added oversight might help avoid future problems.
"Many at The Times with whom I spoke seem to regard Kouwe's plagiarism as an isolated case involving a problematic reporter," Hoyt wrote. "But Ingrassia said he is initiating conversations to see if there are things that should be done differently in DealBook and the rest of his department. At a time when cut-and-paste technology enables plagiarism, when news and information on the Web are treated as commodities, these are conversations worth having throughout the Times building."
Daily Beast Investigative Reporter Resigns after Repeated Plagiarism Allegations
The chief investigative reporter of The Daily Beast news site, Gerald Posner, resigned on Feb. 10, 2010 after a scandal emerged involving plagiarized material from The Miami Herald.
On February 5, Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote about plagiarism evident in a Feb. 2, 2010 post on The Daily Beast that included five sentences copied almost verbatim from a story posted a few hours earlier on The Miami Herald's website.
In Shafer's February 5 story, Posner said he agreed that copying the sentences constituted plagiarism. "There is no excuse," Posner said. "I take full responsibility." Posner also said that the plagiarism was unintentional and he could not understand how it had happened, because he was "absolutely sure" he hadn't seen The Herald story that preceded his own post.
"I must have had the Miami Herald there and copied," Posner said, claiming that the differences between his copy and The Herald's were evidence of him "doing the rewrite" of what he thought was his copy.
Three days later, Shafer wrote another story about the case that alleged several more instances of Posner plagiarizing from various sources. In the February 8 Slate story, The Daily Beast's executive editor, Edward Felsenthal, said that he took the new information "very seriously," and intended to suspend Posner for a full review of his work. In a statement quoted in Shafer's story, Posner reiterated that he took full responsibility for the contested stories, emphasizing that he had only plagiarized what he called the most "mundane information.""I now realize that a method of compiling information that I have used successfully since 1984 on book research, obviously does not work in a failsafe manner at the warp speed of the net," Posner said. "I ask all of you to accept my apology for these instances, a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of words I've written over decades. I accept, however, the full responsibility."
Shafer criticized Posner's apology in a February 11 Slate story. "[Y]ou don't have to rob from Proust to qualify as a low-down plagiarist," Shafer wrote. "Even mundane information takes time and energy to collect and type up - sometimes more time and energy than it takes to toss off an original sonnet."
Posner announced his official resignation from The Daily Beast on a February 10 post on his personal blog. "I shall not be doing journalism on the internet until I am satisfied that I can do so without violating my own standards and the basic rules of journalism," Posner wrote.
On April 1, the Miami New Times blog published a new report that claimed to have found several new cases of plagiarism by Posner on both The Daily Beast and in his new book, Miami Babylon, a nonfiction history of crime in Miami Beach. In a March 17 Associated Press story, Posner acknowledged that he had used a "flawed research methodology" when writing the book, and admitted that he may have used text from another book, Frank Owen's Clubland, without attribution.
"Taken as a whole," the New Times post said, "the new evidence presented here is the most damning yet that Posner isn't a victim of 'warp speed' Internet, 'trailing endnotes,' or a conspiracy. He's just a serial plagiarist, plain and simple."
In the February 11 Slate story, Shafer referenced an essay by Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University and a former Silha Center Ethics Forum speaker. "Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work," Shafer wrote. "But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers. By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny 'the public insight into how key facts come to light' and undermines [sic] the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts. In Wasserman's view, plagiarism violates the very 'truth-seeking and truth-telling' mission of journalism."
- RUTH DEFOSTER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT