Punishing plagiarizers

Does public exposure fit the sin?

Your popular and elderly columnist is plagiarizing some of her material. Should compassion enter into the decision to make your discovery public?

By Conley L. Smith

Conley L. Smith was managing editor of Good Times at the time of the incident on which this article is based. He now is a marketing communications executive.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 5 (August 1989), pp. 2,3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

It was one of those dilemmas in which an editor must choose between two equally unpleasant courses of action. One option appears to be “journalistically correct” but it will gravely harm the reputation and, possibly, the personal well-being of a respected columnist. A more compassionate option is available, but it is viewed as a journalistic cop-out.

This is the story of how such a dilemma was resolved and of how the newspaper editor involved has come to regret the decision he made.

I was the young managing editor of Good Times, a hip, weekly entertainment tabloid in Santa Cruz, CA. She was a 70-ish columnist, on Social

Security, whose rambling tales of “life in the slow lane” as a senior citizen amused our readers and quickly turned her into a celebrity. Because of the success of her column, Dorothy Liermark had become a regular on the local lecture circuit. There were visits to high school journalism classes, awards by senior citizen groups and even a glowing feature article in the competing daily newspaper.

Then we got the letter. Someone thought we should know that a column by our famous senior citizen had been lifted, virtually word for word, from a recent issue of Reader’s Digest. The original article was enclosed. Two or three more letters came in, pointing out (with accompanying evidence) that some of our columnist’s earlier pieces had been plagiarized.

In general, the whistle-blowers questioned the integrity of the paper for printing the plagiarized columns. One letter demanded a public retraction and an apology from the editors.

When confronted with the evidence, the columnist tearfully admitted that she had “borrowed” a few of her most recent articles. She had run out of fresh subject matter and didn’t want to miss a deadline or give up the column. She didn’t think it would harm anyone to “re-work a few ideas” from old magazines. She pleaded with us not to “ruin my life” by making the matter public.

Now the decision and, perhaps, the fate of a human life were in my hands.

Clearly, the writer’s career at Good Times would be coming to an abrupt end. The question was how best to handle her dismissal in light of the ethical and personal issues.

Point: Should I make the plagiarism public and risk “ruining the life” of a popular employee and community fixture? To complicate matters, she had been recently hospitalized, and the state of her health was a question mark.

Counterpoint: As a professional journalist, didn’t I have an obligation to ignore my feelings for the writer and apologize to our readers for having published stolen material?

There was a legal concern, as well. Was it not my responsibility, as the managing editor, to minimize the chances of any future lawsuits by issuing a prompt public retraction?

I discussed the problem with our publisher and we agreed that I would have to fire the columnist.

I decided to run the damaging letters, which cited the Reader’s Digest as the source. Worse, one letter pointed out that the Digest had reprinted the article from a popular writer’s volume of stories.

To the letters, I added my signed note of apology and the admission that our writer’s column had indeed been “too similar to be a coincidence.” I apologized to the author and publication and appended regrets.

Of course, Dorothy Liermark’s column never appeared again. The once-proud columnist stopped getting invited to journalism classes and civic lunches. It would be a dramatic touch to report that she fulfilled my worst fears and soon died of a broken spirit, but she lived for many years. I would occasionally see her around town, but I remember how much older and sadder she looked. She had lost her pizazz, I thought, and others agreed.

Looking back, I have often wondered if I did the right thing.

If the offender had been a middle-aged male, I probably would have spent much time second-guessing thinking my decision. And if Dorothy

Liermark’s health had been better, the decision would have been easier.

I had no choice but to dismiss her. But should I have permitted her to be publicly humiliated by publishing the letters?

I think not. A far kinder solution would have been to drop the column without comment, issue a written apology to the publication from which the columns were stolen, and privately inform those letter writers who included their return address of the action taken.

This may not have been the best “journalistic” approach. However, in retrospect, I believe it would have been the fairest and most humane.

Conley L. Smith was managing editor of Good Times at the time of the incident on which this article is based. He now is a marketing communications executive.

 

How other newspapers deal with plagiarism

Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune‘s policy is to apologize to the readers: “That’s more important than anything else with us – honesty with the reader,” Editor James Squires said. He cited two instances that “were quite celebrated.” In one, a columnist used material from a column published earlier in another city. In the other, a correspondent submitted a story that read almost verbatim like a story in a prominent newspaper in the country he was covering. He had explained away an incident a few years before, but he had no plausible explanation for the one in 1988. “He had worked too long and too hard . . . and wouldn’t quit,” Squires said, even though relief had been sent. Both columnist and correspondent were “allowed to resign.”

“The problem [with plagiarism] is where the line is,” Squires said. “It’s not a very clearly defined line. We are basically all the time assembling someone else’s information.”

The Sacramento Bee

When Sacramento Bee editors determined that a TV columnist had plagiarized a story by a popular author, “the most important thing we had to do was protect the integrity of this newspaper,” Executive Editor Gregory Favre recalls. But “there was a human life and a person’s future involved,” so he had to “see if there was a way to accommodate both and still come out whole.”

The columnist was suspended indefinitely without pay but with benefits; he was advised to get professional help. After six or seven months he was judged fit and was put on general assignment; later he returned to his column. Staff and readers offered the writer a lot of support, Favre said.

“I suspect that most instances of plagiarism are people who know full well, and there are no excuses, no reason for that action. . . . But I would hope we would have room in our policies for those people who . . . in many cases can’t help themselves.”