Earlier this week, as I was uncapping a red pen to work on page proofs, the final step for this issue of Media Ethics, I was sent an AP story with the upsetting headline "Journalism Professor Admits Plagiarism." Upset gave way to shock when I saw who was named as the journalism professor. The story, picked up by the Romanesko and Regret the Error blogs, immediately moved beyond being of interest only to a small city in Missouri and flew around the country.
John Merrill is a friend, co-author, and sparring partner of mine (see our disagreement over the concept of "professionalism" in Media Ethics, 18:1). This doesn't mean that, if the evidence showed that he was guilty of robbing the local bank, I couldn't be objective if I sat on the jury that convicted and sentenced him. I'm sure he would be able to do the same thing if I had pulled a Willie Sutton ("because that's where the money is") on the bank. Because Merrill has written a dozen articles for Media Ethics, and serves on our roster of contributing editors, I felt we couldn't ignore this situation. But, because we won't publish a "regular" issue next spring (see p. 26), I felt that-if this situation was to be of use to our readers-it would have to be discussed in the issue now on my desk. That immediately put a limit on the amount of space available and the time that could be taken to prepare an analysis, commentary or research report.
I've edited magazines and journals for more than 30 years and had my first full-time job in a newsroom more than six decades ago, so I tend to be very cautious about accepting at face value what I read, even AP stories. So, I put aside Media Ethics' page proofs while I rummaged through the Web for details, and exchanged E-mails with a number of academics, journalists and others.
Merrill, author of some 30 books and innumerable articles, has been called many positive things over his more than 60 years as journalist and educator. Like all academic leaders he also has been criticized. But I've never seen the P-word applied to him and, I daresay, neither has he.
Here is a condensed version of what seems to have happened, taken from a variety of sources. Only the undersigned is to blame for any errors, including those made while trying to do justice to the original sources, attempting to deal with apparent variations between versions caused by the ease with which online material can be changed, and avoiding either a whitewash or a hatchet job under deadline pressure.
The University of Missouri recently converted the Women's and Gender Studies Program into a department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Anna Koeppel, senior staff writer for The Maneater, a student (but not a journalism school laboratory) newspaper, wrote a story posted October 5 under the title "Women's and gender studies becomes department." In this story, she provided quotes from two departmental administrators and the dean of the College.
On November 3rd, John Merrill's weekly column in the Columbia Missourian was titled "New department shows splintering of education." In the course of expressing his curmudgeonly opinion, Merrill used three of the quotes from Koeppel's story (and, according to the Missourian's executive editor, an unspecified "about half a sentence" that I was unable to locate), attributing and identifying the administrators who were the original sources of the quotations, but not mentioning that he had picked them up from the Maneater story. It is unknown to what extent the Missourian edited Merrill's columns. A few days later (November 9th), the executive editor of the Missourian, Tom Warhover, published a column with the title "Missourian forced to re-affirm its standards-the hard way." The Missourian's plagiarism policy was prominently boxed and printed alongside the editor's column, starting a few lines below the headline-immediately below a one-sentence paragraph stating "That [what Merrill did] was wrong." After describing the situation as he saw it, including the disclosure that a review of "Merrill's columns over the past year" had turned up five other columns that had at least "one quote [that] had been taken from other publications without attribution," Warhover wrote: "The newspaper's policy prohibits 'using material from other publications without attribution.' As such, the Missourian will no longer run columns by Professor Merrill."
Warhover had talked with Koeppel on Nov. 6, and with Merrill the next day. Merrill apologized to the editor of The Maneater "at once," and received a response on November 11th, graciously accepting the apology and expressing dismay over the "demise" of Merrill's weekly column. On Nov. 8, Merrill had sent a letter to the Missourian, containing an apology to the paper in which he had published his column. On November 13th, following the November 9 column by Warhover in which the public was told that the paper would "no longer run columns" by Merrill, Merrill distributed a document online under the title "'Confessions' of an Accused 'Plagiarist.'" (The AP story apparently was filed the same day.) The Merrill document was printed in full on November 14, 2007 by the Missourian-under the title "Carelessness is not plagiarism" and Merrill's byline. Attached were a number of comments by readers, including several from journalists and journalism educators around the country who were surprised that the P-word had even come up when the actual problem was "lifted" quotes.
It is interesting to note that the P-word wasn't used directly until Merrill's Nov. 8 letter was quoted in Warhover's November 9th column as saying, among other things, that Merrill was "truly sorry about the plagiarism in my column about Women's and Gender Studies. I thought I had mentioned The Maneater as the source from which I got the few and scattered quotes I used to spin off into my column. I always am sensitive to that. I thought I had done it in that column and was really surprised, when you called me in, to find out that I had neglected to do this.. But I assure you that it was 'unintentional' plagiarism, and I had no reason to make it look as if I got these quotes from the sources directly. I was using them as a springboard for my opinion. But I did it, and I'm sorry. Careless, I'll admit, but not intentional."
Thus, the AP headline and lead sentence were somewhat misleading, as what Merrill "admitted" to was "unintentional" and the result of "carelessness" by not providing the full chain of custody while making use of quotes, whereas plagiarism generally implies intent.
In part of his November 13th document, Merrill amplified his explanation: I was, undoubtedly, careless in not naming The Maneater, the MU student newspaper, as the news source from which I got the several direct quotes from Women's and Gender Studies departmental spokespersons. These direct quotes I used to spin off into my column. I did not lift any sentences, paragraphs, or more, from anybody else's writing. I look on these short directly quoted expressions from the two women in the news story as "news-facts" or "factoids" (as some call them) and see them in the public domain. Certainly, if what I did is plagiarism, it was unintentional and could, at the most, be considered technical, not unethical.
I apologized at once, after Missourian editor Tom Warhover surprised me with his accusation, to the editor of The Maneater for my carelessness. I wanted to apologize in The Missourian and explain my actions... As I gathered stories, columns, and E-mails concerned with this story, I didn't at first know what I might do with them. After all, I certainly didn't have enough time to collect every published commentary or piece of information to do the kind of scholarly analysis that may enter the literature and be of long-lasting value. Also, this magazine is on a tight financial budget that would be hard to stretch. With less-limited resources, all of the documents mentioned above could probably be published in their entirety-which Media Ethics would have liked to have done. This page is the compromise consequence. This case has provided us with an opportunity to think, to teach, and to learn. To my way of thinking, its greatest value may be to provide us with the impetus to redefine "plagiarism" more clearly as an ethical construct rather than leave it entirely to the lawyers as a branch of copyright law. The role of the quote-is it a factoid in the public domain, or is it the property of the original questioner-needs a great deal more attention, coming as it does in an era where unattributed quotes are the stock in trade of many reporters who are automatically mistrusted if they report what they've seen and heard for themselves. How often is credit given to another reporter at a news conference, where any particular question may be used by the entire pack? What are the responsibilities of an editor when publishing a column-whether written by a staff member or someone else? What about the common practice of eliminating awkward (and sometimes ungrammatical) usage, even within quotation marks? Paraphrasing? (In this story, is "gender-related" the same as "gender-oriented"?) We also need to make some additional decisions about how far the additional freedom of a columnist over a reporter-by definition, the right to express opinion and use satire-may go. And every newsroom needs to discuss these matters.
So, in my opinion, these questions go far beyond being of concern only to two writers and two editors in Columbia, Missouri. For myself, at the nexus of a lot of E-mail about media ethics, I've heard comments ranging from "tempest in a teapot" (the most common metaphor, by far) to horror directed at anyone who has merely been accused of the P-word.
Perhaps the most cogent summation I've seen was received from John Hamer, executive director of the Washington News Council and former associate editorial page editor of The Seattle Times:
I don't know John Merrill and have no connection to the University of Missouri J-School or to the Missourian. But this strikes me as an unfortunate overreaction. Would readers really have been better served if Merrill had written "so-and-so told The Maneater" after each quote? I doubt most readers would have much cared. The quotes were fairly innocuous. An outside observer might reasonably wonder if the crackdown on Merrill was more attributable to his acerbic comments on the Women's and Gender Studies Department than to his borrowed quotations from administrators. In these days of hypersensitivity to ethical violations in the media-largely brought on by too many journalists cutting ethical corners-one can't be too careful. But the profession still should be able to make distinctions between egregious offenses and ethical hangnails.
What can each of us learn from this teaching moment?
John Michael Kittross, Editor