As you know, the Star recently acknowledged to readers that parts of an article by one of our reporters contained unattributed material reported in the Globe and Mail. Later in the same week, we learned that Chris Spence had plagiarized portions of an op-ed piece in the Star. This note is to bring you up to date on what followed.
A review of the reporter’s work over the last year is now complete. Although it found some lapses, it shows an overall pattern of attention to attribution. The review has brought to light some institutional problems which we need to address, including inconsistent publishing of endnotes attached to stories by the reporter and potential gaps in our policy on attributing wire material.
During the review, we bought a program that helps identify material in stories that has appeared elsewhere. Information about the software is available at www.ithenticate.com.
The plan is to use it in two ways: the first, along with other tools, is to help conduct thorough checks when one of our reporters or contributors faces accusations of plagiarism. This software should never and will never be used as the sole determining factor in assessing anyone’s attribution practices. Any findings it produces will be thoroughly reviewed by editors in a process involving the person whose work is flagged.
The second is to identify through a random review of newsroom work further gaps in our policies on attribution and sourcing that are evident in common practice. This review will take place by May.
We need to determine how our standards have kept pace with the following challenges, which many of you have raised: appropriate use of wire credits in endnotes, bylines and in copy and which should be used when; attribution of established fact; fast rewriting in an accelerated news cycle in which no one is immune to error.
I know that every reporter in our newsroom is committed to honest attribution in their daily work. The aim of the review is to get a handle as a group on how we are dealing with these challenges and make sure our policies give reporters sufficient guidance to guard against substandard practice.
Below is our policy on attribution and plagiarism, which was recently updated. Going forward, a small working group will evaluate this policy again based on the outcome of the review.
In the meantime, we will be holding voluntary training sessions in late January and early February for reporters with questions or concerns about our current standards. I’m always available if you have suggestions or queries, and welcome a discussion.
ATTRIBUTION AND PLAGIARISM
The Star does not present other media’s reporting as its own or publish unattributed material from other sources. Ideas, phrases or substantial passages that are not the writer’s, have not been reported on by the writer or are not common knowledge should be attributed in some way. Plagiarism — the unattributed use of material from another published source — is grounds for discipline or dismissal.
The Star attributes and credits material to its source, including reporting obtained exclusively by other media organizations — print, broadcast or online.
If a Star journalist has witnessed or verified an event, this is stated in the Star’s report.
Circumstances of interviews — telephone, email, webcast or news conference — should be made clear when relevant. Email interviews are permitted but journalists should strive to authenticate the source.
As with our own unnamed sources, as much information as possible on sources cited by other news organizations should be provided.
The continuous news cycle — breaking news alerts, live blogs, Twitter — puts a premium on speed but accuracy — both of information and in attribution — should not be a casualty. If in doubt, leave it out remains a golden rule. Any questions or concerns should be discussed with a senior editor.
For journalists, the Internet is a treasure trove and a minefield of information. Proceed with caution. The Star does not grab and publish material from the Internet. Any information from web sources such as Facebook, chat rooms, MySpace, Twitter feeds, personal websites or blogs must be verified to establish the bona fides of the sources.
Identities must be scrupulously checked as the possibilities for mistaken identity are vast. Journalists, identifying themselves as such, should make every effort to get in touch with the originator of the material, preferably through personal or telephone contact.
User-generated digital sources, including the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, are not stand-alone, authoritative sources of information and should never be used as sole sources. Facts gleaned from such sites must be verified elsewhere.
Material that has not been verified should rarely be published. In rare cases, such material may appear with the permission of a senior editor. In these cases, it should be made clear that the Star was unable to verify the information. The originating source of the information must be identified.
Managing Editor, Toronto Star
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