Plagiarism in journalism is nothing new, but it’s rare that the integrity of a newsroom as large and respected as the Chicago Tribune is questioned. On July 13th, the revered Windy City periodical ended their relationship with Journatic, an outsourced news agency, after discovering that quotes from both the Deerfield Review and Patch.com had been used in Tribune articles in the month of June. In a statement released Friday morning, the Tribune stated that it will now rely on its regular staff and “trusted freelancers” to provide the local news Journatic had been supplying them with.
This isn’t the first time that a major US newspaper has had to deal with plagiarism, but it is different in that it involves an outsourced service and not a staff reporter. The New York Times, back in 2010, forced the resignation of a business reporter named Zachery Kouwe after being informed that he had copied verbatim from the Wall Street Journal in at least six instances while covering the Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme story. Kouwe had been with NYT for less than a year at the time of his resignation. In this case, the reporter from Journatic, Luke Campbell, was a freelance writer.
The Chicago Tribune’s relationship with Journatic had only been established the previous April, and unfortunately the paper had already terminated half of its local staff writers who had been covering local news to make room for the new company. That department, with the help of Journatic, was responsible for publishing the TribLocal Thursday supplement, local news for more than ninety communities that surround the City of Chicago.
Vince Casanova, Tribune vice president, when interviewed by the Columbia Journalism Review, didn’t comment on any plans to rehire the former TribLocal reporters. He simply stated that the use of Journatic content was “suspended indefinitely”. Journatic did not release a statement on the issue, but Chief Editor Mike Fourcher did resign immediately following the Tribune’s suspension announcement, citing an inability to effect change at Journatic due to “closely guarded decision making”.
When Is It Journalistic Plagiarism?
Luke Campbell, the freelance writer from Journatic who was found to have plagiarized the works of others in Tribune articles, was clearly guilty of the offense. In addition to copying one quote word for word from a Bill McLean story in the Deerfield Review, he also fabricated a quote without speaking to the subject in a second story titled “Epstein shows effectiveness on the mound.” The actions show a lack of integrity and fairly shoddy research skills. Editors and executives at both the Tribune and Journatic agree.
According to Wikipedia, journalistic plagiarism is defined as a “reporter’s failure to honestly acknowledge their sources,” an action or inaction that undermines the credibility of the writer and the publication he or she is writing for. This was the case in both the Journatic case and in the previously stated Zachary Kouwe case at the New York Times. Unfortunately it’s not always as clear as in these two instances.
Some instances are far less blatant – either because the journalist worked harder to cover it up, or because they simply didn’t know they were breaking the rules. Whether journalistic plagiarism is blatant or not, it is a growing problem that needs to be addressed in order to maintain the integrity of our best publications.