Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sins of Media

Adriana Navarro

Plagiarism seems to be the scarlet letter in the world of journalism, which is arguably why company’s cringe away from any association with it if discovered in the workplace as Craig Silverman makes it seem in his article Journalism’s Summer of Sin marked by plagiarism, fabrication, obfuscation.

Below his article, Silverman listed the journalism sins concerning the three said mistakes of the summer of 2012.  According to that list, NPR had an intern who published his account of witnessing a public execution, only it contained plagiarized content.  Looking at NPR’s ethics handbook under Accountability, the company encourages people to bring to light if there are any mistakes to fix transcripts and online reports.  It also states that NPR holds a rule against “silent” corrections, and under the section of Honesty has a few paragraphs on plagiarism and how it was an “unforgivable offense."  Steve Meyers wrote an article on the intern who committed the plagiarism, Ahmad Shafi, as well as how NPR dealt with the incident.  Comparing NPR’s Accountability statements to the copy of the message from NPR’s former senior VP Margaret Low Smith provided by Meyer, the company did take the plagiarized article down later the same day that it was published.  However, Meyer reported that they did not let the intern Shafi go, but rather took him off broadcast and the web until his work was reviewed.  He includes a quote from Anna Christopher, a NPR spokeswoman.  She explained that English not the first language of the foreign intern, but was one of the five that he spoke.  Shafi “went looking for a better way to describe what he remembered seeing.”  David Rothschild created a blog post on the incident, pointing out that Shafi’s journalism training in Afghanistan didn’t consider plagiarism as horrifying as a sin as in America, which may be a reason why NPR kept him as an intern.


A more common cause of the three sins of plagiarisms, fabrication and obfuscation mentioned in Silverman’s article is brought up in Lori Roberston’s article Confronting the Culture.  Roberston points out that there’s the pressure to keep the stories coming, to be the first to publish, yet also keeping up in accuracy and ethics.  The first thing to come to my mind in response is the first day of English class in my high school sophomore year.  My teacher, currently the teacher of the newspaper course at the school as well, stressed the importance of accuracy in writing.  He pulled down a newspaper article that he had had up on display on the board, the front-page proclaiming 12 of 13 miners had survived the collapsed mine in Sago, West Virginia.  The paper had been printed before a rescue team was able to get all of the miners out.  Rather than only one miner dead as publications had said, only one miner of the 13 had survived.  It was a crushing mistake that tore at the hearts of the families of the miners as well as the reputation of the press associations that had published the incorrect information. 

Coincidentally enough, the Sago Mine tragedy appears in Rachel Smolkin’s article about transparency as well. Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today, which was one of the news publications that published the early stories of the miners, admitted in Smolkin’s article that tight deadlines pushed the inaccurate story.  Paulson’s quick to ask if transparency “only applies when you screw up” when a good deal of the rest of the publications also made the same mistake, some publishing corrections and/or apologies shortly after.

But shouldn't everything have a balance?  It's all about being responsible to keep things in check.  A reporter shouldn't refrain from finding sources or doing research to avoid plagiarism.  In fact, if a reporter doesn't have any sources, then his or her writing will fall flat or, even worse, result in a fabricated story.  To edge away from one journalism sin can sometimes lead to moving closer to another.  Even transparency comes in a balance with timing at utmost importance.

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