Is the Washington Post Giving Up in the Battle Against Plagiarism?

Posted by David R. on Jun 6, 2011 8:00:00 AM

iStock 000007374399XSmallWashington Post spokesman Patrick Pexton recently wrote an article about plagiarism within the Post, as well as the organization’s attitude towards dealing with it.  More specifically, Pexton shed light on an instance of plagiarism from the Post’s travel section on April 17th that originated from a hired freelancer.

Pexton expounds on the topic of freelancer plagiarism, saying:

“But as for preventing any further instances of this kind of thing, here is the reality. The Post does not have an army of fact-checkers, as Kevin Sullivan, Post Sunday editor, explained. The paper can’t send staffers to Eastern Europe to fact-check every travel story. The Post is vulnerable to a one-shot deception by an unscrupulous freelancer.”

This statement from Pexton is receiving accolades from sources like Business Insider writer Noah Davis, who boldly states:

“The transparency of Pexton's post is far more important to the future of the Post -- and its credibility -- than a couple instances of plagiarism.”

Sure, transparency is great; Pexton goes a step beyond than many other publications in admitting that there is indeed a plagiarism problem. 

However, outwardly stating that the paper can’t do anything about it goes too far.

Imagine if, after a massive outbreak of car thefts, the Mayor of Washington D.C. stated: “Sorry folks, this is just the kind of thing that happens all the time.  With our current resources we just can’t do anything about it.”  Yes, there is truth in this hypothetical statement because car thefts are mostly likely going to occur no matter what.  However, outright saying that the city isn’t going to enact any preventative measures to stop the theft is problematic.

The same goes for the Pexton’s candid statement on preventing plagiarism. 

This is giving up, admitting defeat, waving the white flag to plagiarizers who would tarnish the long-standing reputation of the Washington Post. 

Although he doesn’t directly mention it, Pexton could be alluding to the recent case of star reporter Sari Horwitz, who after winning three Pulitzers was caught plagiarizing because of a “lapse in judgement.”  Perhaps the Horwitz case was the final nail in the coffin, breaking the will of the Post so far as to state that plagiarism is simply something that happens, like the tides coming in or the seasons changing.

This is the type of statement that says to plagiarizers (whether they be freelancers or star reporters) “OK, so there’s a chance you won’t get caught. Might as well give it a try.”

So what should the Washington Post say regarding their position on plagiarism?

How about telling us about the changes they’re making to prevent it from happening again.  Sure, nothing is 100%, and cases are bound to slip through the cracks, but readers as well as authors deserve to know that a publication is doing everything in its power to prevent plagiarism.

Yes, an ‘army of fact-checkers’ may be unreasonable, however, implementing a rigorous pre-publication plagiarism prevention strategy that is standardized for freelancers and staff writers is not.  Utilizing a combination of traditional peer-review methods and modern plagiarism detection technologies could be a cost effective way to catch the majority of cases before they went out the front door – saving the Washington Post face and the potential for harmful lawsuits.

Making a forward-thinking, positive statement such as this makes all the difference in asserting the Washington Post’s future credibility. 

Doing so is certainly better than giving up.


Pexton, Patrick B. “A freelancer rips off a documentary for a Post Travel article.” The Washington Post.

Davis, Noah. “The Washington Post Admits it Can’t Stop Plagiarism.” Business Insider.


Topics: Current Events