News - G(rave) mistake
A case of plagiarism hits CL
The act of presenting another writer's material as one's own — verbatim or sometimes subtly changed — is the ultimate sin of journalism, akin to a bad cop planting evidence or a firefighter torching buildings. In recent years, high-profile cases of plagiarism and the fabrication of sources have rocked publications from the Boston Globe to The New Republic. Last week, both elements were at play in an article published Aug. 26 in Creative Loafing and its suburban sister publications, Topside Loaf and Gwinnett Loaf. The incident left CL editors scrambling to make amends on several fronts, and the reporter was subsequently fired after the startlingly blunt attempt at plagiarism was discovered.
"I'm very embarrassed by the incident itself but very proud of the way we handled this," says CL Managing Editor Ken Edelstein. "It became obvious we did not have a choice if we are a self-respecting news organization encountering such an egregious flauting of journalistic standards."
The offending 40-graph article appeared on the covers of the Topside and Gwinnett editions, while a shorter variation of it ran in the Atlanta edition that same day. Its subject was Atlanta's ever-growing rave scene; its characters, music, philosophies and its inherent ecstasy-fueled image. As many as nine paragraphs in the article were lifted — largely verbatim — from a like-minded article published in March by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some were general background graphs on the trappings of the scene. Others were of sources and their quotes. Still others lifted quotes from a source in the AJC article and attributed them to a fictitious person.
The day after publication, a website for a local rave zine had up to 30 postings attacking the article. One even compared passages, and the postings were brought to the attention of Topside/Gwinnett Managing Editor Scott Henry, who reports to Edelstein. Henry began comparing the articles as the phone calls and e-mails started coming in. In addition, sources who were interviewed for the article began refuting their quotes.
By the end of the day, editors had placed the reporter on suspension and were fashioning a correction on deadline for the next week's editions, speaking to individual complaints and noting that material in the article should have been attributed to the AJC. It appeared in the Sept. 2 edition. On Aug. 29, the reporter was fired. Editors also contacted the AJC writer to apologize and invited some of the article's principals to meet to further discuss the situation.
Says one of the sources who was lifted, and who was hesitant to be quoted yet again, "I'm seeing how serious this was to them, and I'm glad they did something quick."
Last week's CL included a story by another writer about the FutureFest 2000 rave. Needless to say, that story contained no plagiarism.
"This is a very important readership group to us, a group we want to cover better and offer information to," says Edelstein. "I've been in the newspaper business 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this. I've never dealt with such a difficult personnel issue." That's easy to believe.
What has been most wrenching to Edelstein and Henry — and astounding to observers like myself — is, of course, the question of why. Especially when the reporter had been a solid general assignment staffer and columnist for nearly two years, and one who had worked at a suburban daily three years before that. And why so blatantly as to rip-off another local publication about a subculture so image conscious it would be nearly impossible to get away with?
Deadline pressure and the inability to pull the article together on time, editors were told after the reporter ultimately admitted the transgressions. I dare say fear of failure or loss of reputation or fear of falling out of favor with an editor could also have been involved. All of the above is plausible, and every journalist has felt it.
Might as well ask Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith why they plagiarized and made up sources respectively. Or Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass at The New Republic. (Shalit got caught twice before exiting while Glass made stuff up in 27 articles.) Or ask Janet Cooke why she made up a child heroin addict in the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer in '81.
As you may have noticed by now, I've decided not to name the CL reporter, who arguably has paid for the transgression and who was not pressed to comment here.
Editors trust reporters, sources trust reporters, reporters trust sources, readers trust a publication. Without it, there's no such thing as journalism.
Greg Fulton can be reached at email@example.com?.