Freelance food critic Elliott Shaffner has been fired both from both the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly and has had her articles removed from both publications. This follows allegations that she used uncited language from another reviewer in her articles.
The story began at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which noticed that Shaffner’s July 28th column had passages copied from a 2011 L.A. Weekly review written Jonathan Gold.
In a public apology by the Times-Dispatch’s executive editor, Paige Mudd, the paper had parted ways with Shanner and removed all of her reviews from their website.
The Times-Dispatch also published an open letter written by Shaffner in which she apologized for the “senseless mistake”. Though she said she could offer no excuse, she did offer an “explanation”, saying that it was not malicious. According to her:
I have lines, quotes, filling my notebooks of people’s words that I love and am inspired by.
It was not intentionally deceitful or steal-y. But I sent it into the world, it is my fault and I am mortified.
What I have to say is, that in a flurry of desperation, time management, lack of good judgment, I unwittingly put someone else’s words into work under my name.
However, it was quickly revealed that the July 28th article was not a one-time transgression. Style Weekly, in a note from the editors, said that they had found plagiarism in at least two of Shaffner’s works and were also pulling down her reviews.
When readers on Facebook pushed for Style Weekly to provide citations for the passages Shaffner was accused of copying, they responded with a lengthy common comparing passages from Shaffner and Jonathan Gold.
In her apology letter, Shaffner described herself as “a major fan girl of Jonathan Gold’s,” something that seems to come through in her copying, which seems to have only pulled from Gold.
For his part, Gold has said that Mudd has reached out to him but Shaffner has not. He goes on to say that he feels that Shaffner’s apology was “sincere and contrite”.
However, while Gold’s forgiveness is admirable, the sincerity of the apology is undermined by the discovery of repeated plagiarism. Shaffner’s contention that this was not a malicious act and simply a mistake is belied by the fact that so many articles are involved.
Fortunately, both the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly handled the case extremely well. Both were very transparent about the issue, posting publicly on their sites and social media about it, and both removed all of Shaffner’s work since the entire pool had become tainted.
As for Shaffner, it’s unclear what will happen next. As news publications rely more and more heavily on freelancers, there’s always a chance they can find another job in the field. Benny Johnson, the former editor of Buzzfeed who was fired over plagiarism, was quickly hired by The National Review.
But while plagiarism isn’t the guaranteed blackball it once was in journalism, it still sets careers back seriously, especially one like Shaffner’s that seemed to be on the rise.
All in all, the story is a reminder to aspiring journalists and authors. While it’s great to have others you admire and wish to emulate, plagiarism is simply a quick way to derail a budding career.
Having idols is fine, but if you don’t write and speak with your own voice, you probably won’t have a career very long as a writer.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.