Plagiarism is described in NPR’s writer policies as the “unforgivable sin” of journalism, but their reaction to an instance of plagiarism from one of their own interns this past week shows that nothing in the media is ever black and white. Ahmad Shafi, an intern who up until a few months ago was serving on the Kabul bureau for NPR as a fixer and translator, copied, pasted, and only slightly modified sixty-eight words from a story written in 2001 by Jason Burke- a clear case of plagiarism.
The article containing duplicate content described a Taliban execution that Shafi attended with British journalist Julian West. His presence there was verified by West, so the piece was not a complete fabrication as was case involving a Wall Street Journal intern earlier this year. Shafi’s depictions and observations were accurate, and the emotions he felt are chronicled graphically and succinctly. The writing itself is great and the story paints a clear picture of Taliban violence.
So why does a writer with this level of talent choose to plagiarize another’s work?
In this case, it’s likely an instance of unintentional ignorance on behalf of a foreign born intern. In Afghanistan, where Shafi received his journalistic training, it is not considered as much as an “unforgivable sin” to copy and paste lines from another’s story, provided the bulk of the article is original copy. When confronted by NPR editors after the story was published, Shafi did not deny the use of Burke’s verbiage because he was unaware he was in the wrong. NPR chose not to penalize him because of these circumstances.
Journalistic Ethics and Removal of Published Articles
NPR provides a comprehensive explanation of what happened in the Ahmad Shafi case in an article on their website titled “Forgiving the Unforgivable Sin of Plagiarism.” To summarize, the article in question was published only after Shafi had worked with editor and former foreign correspondent Greg Myre to polish it up and cut down the word count. The plagiarism was detected by a reader 40 minutes after it was published. NPR investigated, verified the claims, and had the story removed within an hour, incredibly fast work for any media outlet.
Jason Burke, writer of the original article and currently a reporter for the “Guardian and Observer” in South Asia, called the incident a “fairly major error in judgment” on the part of Shafi, but believes it was done without malice. Former Kabul bureau Chief Quil Lawrence, Shafi’s mentor at NPR, now working back in the United States, stated that Shafi “would never do it again.” These are fairly innocuous comments for an offense that has gotten a number of interns and reporters fired over the years. Is this situation truly different from all of those or are there politics at play here? The comment section under the article at NPR is filled with criticism and hostility. Is it deserved?
The removal of the article in question is also causing a stir in the media community. According to an article written by Jack Shafer at Reuters, NPR’s removal of the article was "silly."
“Why shouldn’t acts of plagiarism committed online be preserved online for study and enlightenment” Shafer asks. He goes on to document how nothing published on the internet ever truly dies. There are caches, archives, and small news websites out there right now carrying Shafi’s story. Will they carry news of his firing for committing the journalistic cardinal sin of plagiarism? Not this time. NPR feels it’s an issue of ethics and education that doesn’t require disciplinary action. What’s your opinion?