Kendra Marr, Plagiarism, and the Journalistic Ecosystem
Some sad news in the journalism world today: a young Medill grad named Kendra Marr resigned from Politico after plagiarizing articles from the New York Times, The Hill, and several other publications. Here's Politico's note, but you have to delve into the articles to understand what's meant by plagiarism in this case. I took a look at two, Marr's article "TSA not flying high fiscally" and the NYT article that led to her resignation, "Plan to Raise Fees for Air Travelers Sets Off Debate" by Susan Stellin. Part of what's so sad about it—besides just seeing someone with a lot of promise submit to temptation, or fatigue, or whatever caused it—is that it really didn't have to be that way.
Politico doesn't directly explain which are the "troubling similarities to work earlier published by others," but the six references to previous reporting by the Times in the revised article is a clue:
NYT: "Passengers currently pay a $2.50 security fee for each segment of a trip, up to a maximum of $10 for a round-trip ticket. In its deficit reduction plan released last week, the administration proposed raising the fee initially to $5 for a one-way trip and then increasing the fee by 50 cents a year from 2013 to 2017, ultimately adding up to a $15 security charge on a round-trip airline ticket."
"About $15 billion of the additional revenue collected over a decade would go toward deficit reduction. But the administration said another reason for the increase was to raise to 75 percent the portion of aviation security paid for by airlines and their passengers, rather than less than half the budget as has been the case for years."
Politico: "As the Times reported, airline passengers currently fork over a $2.50 security fee for each leg of a trip, up to a maximum of $10 for a round-trip airline ticket. This recovers less than half of the TSA’s aviation security costs, which have rapidly grown over the years. Since the fee has remained unchanged, taxpayers have been forced to make up the difference.
"Under the president’s plan, the fee would get bumped up to $5 for a one-way trip, then see increases of 50 cents a year from 2013 to 2017. Ultimately, it would add up to a $15 security charge on a round-trip ticket — an increase that’ll cover 75 percent of the aviation security budget, according to the Office of Management and Budget."
NYT: "The airlines also oppose a provision in the administration’s proposal that would impose a new $100 per flight fee on commercial carriers and private planes, which would go to the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic services."
Politico: "Airlines also oppose the Obama administration’s call for a new $100 per flight fee on commercial carriers and private planes, which would go to the Federal Aviation Administration for air-traffic services, the Times said."
NYT: "Mr. Lord said that the Transportation Security Agency had generally been responsive to his office’s recommendations, and he and Mr. Lott credited the agency’s recent efforts to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach through the trusted traveler program that is now being developed to offer vetted travelers less scrutiny."
Politico: "TSA advocates say that if the program takes off, it could be a major turning point for the current one-size-fits-all model, which currently requires everyone to be inspected by the most-advanced screening technology. If certain travelers can move through security quickly, it gives the TSA more time to focus resources on genuine potential threats."
So it seems she (barely) rewrote much of the Times article to accompany some of her own reporting and filed it under her own name. That's really bad. But the hell of it is she seems to have done some of her own reporting. Just for instance, the quote from Bruce Schenier, at least from a quick Google search, seems original.
I have a solution for this: blogging.
Let us assume that Marr really wanted to write about the TSA in order to add to the discussion advanced by Susan Stellin's article. The traditional model of news articles—which is a peculiar format for lots of reasons—leaves her with a dilemma. She can't really re-report Stellin's reporting. She can use some of Stellin's reporting with clear attribution, but not very much of it. Or she could take a tack influenced by Stellin's angle but not using Stellin's reporting as a crutch.
And that's the obvious solution, insofar as Stellin isn't getting ripped off and Marr keeps her job. But for the reader, it's still a loss of context, even if the reader doesn't realize it. Which isn't a sin, but it's not great for the advancement of human understanding, either.
This is why blogging is great, but it's not like referring to the work that led you down a certain path is some newfangled 21st-century invention. It's the basis of most other forms of nonfiction, particularly academic work, which places a premium on integrating prior research.
That's what makes me sad about Marr's case. There was a form, if not possible in Politico's print edition, that was a simple, ethical solution for Marr: refer to Stellin's article with full attribution and a link, and advance Stellin's reporting with her additional research—for instance, the extra and vivid information about the "puffer" machines and Schneier's analysis. Nothing is stolen, information and work isn't unnecessarily duplicated, and the reader has a path of information to follow, connecting information instead of atomizing it. Don't reuse or recycle; reinterpret.
Speaking of bad journalism, a different, really weird mini-scandal: Reuters has been the butt of jokes since publishing a story suggesting connections between George Soros and Adbusters, the magazine that initially inspired Occupy Wall Street. The New York Observer explains (it's so weird that it's impossible to summarize). What's interesting to me is that it's a very rare occurence. Usually corrections are born from bad reporting. In this case, the reporting was fine; it's just that the premise was completely unsupported by the reporting and research.
A responsible way to address the criticism—instead of the flailing that the Observer has documented—would be something along the lines of "Reuters stands by the reporting in this article but not the framing. We regret the interpretation." Someday....
Photograph: Seattle Municipal Archives (CC by 2.0)