News reporters who plagiarize their stories occasionally make the news themselves – when they are found out. I was alerted to just such a story a few days ago. My alert service pointed to two short online reports and I had a look. There were a couple of statements in those reports which puzzled me, they were so intriguing they got me looking for more details and for clarification.
I am not sure that I found clarification. I did find more reports on the same story, some published a day or two later but quite a few published much earlier. The core of the story remained the same but each succeeding report I looked at seemed to add a different detail. Unhelpfully, some of those extra details did not quite match the details of other reports.
And while I do not want to comment on the case itself, not least because there is an active legal case going on (the reporter is suing for unfair dismissal), I think there are general points which can be made and general questions to ask which are of interest with regard to honesty and integrity in education and academia.
Let’s dive in!
There is agreement on the basic situation: Fred Mogul, a journalist, had been fired from the job he had held for held for 18 years, reporting for New York radio station WNYC and was suing the station for wrongful dismissal.
The first reports I read, though not the first to be published, were a New York Post story and one in the Daily Beast. Both were datelined 16 June 2021 and both said that Mogul had been fired for plagiarism.
The Daily Beast story, written by Blake Montgomery and with the headline Ex-WNYC Reporter Sues Station Over Firing for Plagiarism, states that
(Mogul) claims he included just two sentences of AP copy in a draft version of a story and credited the wire service at the bottom of the draft. Mogul says the two sentences did not appear in the final version of the story, published on WNYC’s sister site Gothamist under the headline “Cuomo Wants Rapid Testing to Reopen Sporting Events. Should he Consider COVID-Sniffing Dogs?”
In her story for the New York Post, Ex-WNYC reporter sues radio station over plagiarism allegations, Priscilla DeGregory stated
Mogul, 52, said he included two sentences of AP copy in a draft version of his story — not the published version, the court papers claim.
And since the draft included a credit to AP at the bottom — and the radio station subscribed to the news wire service — Mogul believed that he was following WNYC’s style guide, the court documents said.
The sentences in question were ultimately not included in the published version of the story titled “Cuomo Wants Rapid Testing to Reopen Sporting Events. Should he Consider COVID-Sniffing Dogs?” which ran on Jan. 28 on Gothamist.com. The news site and WNYC are owned by New York Public Radio.
It was that inclusion of the source “at the bottom” of the draft that first intrigued me. We teach our senior students that, for academic work, it is usually not enough to include a bibliography of works used at the end of an essay, we need to include citations in the text at the point of use, so we can tell which piece of information came from which of the sources we use. Was this the problem with Mogul’s draft?
I was careful to say senior students there. I am aware that many schools teach and expect a list of bibliographical references several years before they start teaching and expecting in-text citations. I cannot help thinking that this is the wrong order, that it is more helpful for understanding if we demand honesty from the earliest ages – and thus citation (of some kind) at the point of use should come first. A list of references at the end of the piece can come later; the consistent formatting of references in the list maybe later still. The danger is that students taught bibliography first may have switched off by the time they get to learn – or not learn – about in-text citation. I discuss this at some length in an earlier article Somewhere, over the spectrum …
But – this was a draft. Were the allegedly copied sentences in quotation marks? If not, then this it is dangerous practice. Even with the credit to AP – Associated Press – at the bottom of the draft article, it can be too easy to forget what exactly AP contributed to the piece, and without quotation marks or other indication of copy-pasting, too easy to forget whether this was direct quotation or paraphrase of what was said.
And again – this was a draft. The two AP sentences used in the draft (according to Mogul in both of these reports) were not used in the published version. If they were not used, how can Mogul be accused of plagiarism? Can Mogul be accused of plagiarism?
In education, we probably would not cry “Plagiarism!” if a student used two unattributed but copied sentences in a draft. If the student was still very much learning the ropes, we might treat this as a a teaching opportunity, a learning moment; a more experienced student might get a black look, be reminded of the “rules,” and be told to correct the error and also to check to make sure this has not been done elsewhere as well. Don’t forget – it is a draft, not the final piece.
The New York Post article went on to say that Audrey Cooper, the Editor in Chief of New York Public Radio (NYPR) (which owns both WNYC and Gothamist.com, the website on which Mogul’s article appeared) had met with NYPR staffers to tell them of Mogul’s dismissal, and told them
that he’d “signed his name on AP copy without having AP on the byline” and saying he “lifted another person’s words.”
This article also quotes from the legal suit that Mogul was bringing against NYPR:
“Cooper summarily dismissed an 18-year veteran WNYC reporter, accusing him of plagiarism and deception, on the basis of two sentences of AP copy appearing in a draft unpublished story which he offered to rewrite which followed a link to the AP story and included an attribution tagline crediting AP, all in accordance with past practice in the WNYC Newsroom,” the suit claims.
Curiouser and curiouser. If I read this right, the two sentences were hyperlinked to the Associated Press’s original story, and the “credit to AP at the bottom” was different to a bibliographical reference or endnote, it was a tagline – journalism-speak for giving credit to a source which contributes to a story without being a main or on-the-spot writer; taglines are usually placed at the end of an article. Bylines, which appear after the title and subtitle at the top of an article, include the name/s only of the main writers. (In some press outlets, only those who report from the scene are included in the byline). (I had to look all this up; I went to Poynter, a school of journalism and more, to discover the difference, in this case in the article Datelines, Bylines, Other Lines).
Curiouser still, the next piece I found: This is the ‘mean-to’ moment of the media. Stop shouting and go to HR, attributed to Nation World News Desk and posted on the Nation World News site with a dateline 24 May 2021, three weeks and more before the New York Post and Daily Beast articles. This article gives a little background to Audrey Cooper’s appointment at NYPR; it seems she was hired to make sweeping changes in the journalism of both WNYC and Gothamist. This article suggests that
(Cooper met) another stumbling block in early February, when Fred Mogul, an 18-year veteran of the radio side, filed a story with a paragraph printed in a different font. The editor realized that it was Associated Press copy; Ms. Cooper immediately fired Mr. Mogul (who refused to be interviewed through his union) for plagiarism, without reviewing whether he had ever done it before.
Now, a different font is not necessarily the best way to signal a quotation, but it may be legitimate in a draft, a signal to the writer to do something – which might include checking a quotation and its provenance? – before publication. It is a form of placeholder, a device I discuss in Knowing how to write is not knowing how to write.
Me, I highlight things I want to check, there are surely many other ways to signal to self. And when copy-pasting and thus quoting, I use either quotation-marks or block quotation in my notes or draft – and include the source at point of use. When writing a draft, I rarely construct a formatted bibliographic reference at this point in the process, but I do make sure that I have noted all the elements I might need in a bibliographical reference; I can tidy up later if I use it in the finished piece.
At first glance, the last sentence of the paragraph just quoted seemed odd: should it matter whether this is a first offense or not? While the reputation of a news outlet can be hit hard if its journalism is suspect, this offense (if it was an offense) was caught before damage was done, before the piece was published. And New York State employment law might just give employees the right to receive a warning for a first offense, dismissal only if the offense is repeated.
Another early article on the case would seem to confirm that Audrey Cooper was making major changes at WNYC and Gothamist. Jeremy Fuster, in an article in The Wrap with the title WNYC Accused of ‘Coordinated and Aggressive Campaign’ Against Internal Critics in SAG-AFTRA Complain to NLRB and also published on 23 May 2021, includes the notion that Mogul’s method of crediting AP as the source in a tagline
was standard practice for the station prior to Cooper’s arrival.
We do not know what was in the original draft that caused the furore and led to Mogul’s sacking but it is interesting to see what was published. We can see there is no tagline on Mogul’s story as it appears in Gothamist. It was published on 28 January 2021 with the title Cuomo Wants Rapid Testing To Reopen Sporting Events. Should He Consider COVID-Sniffing Dogs? It includes the paragraph
“If you think about it, detection dogs are not new,” Matthew Jafarian, the Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy, told the Associated Press. “You’ve seen them in airports, they’ve been used in mission critical situations by the police and the military. We’ve used them at the arena for years to detect explosives.”
Associated Press is hyperlinked.
Hold on there. Follow the link and we see, almost word-for-word, Mogul’s paragraph in the original Associated Press article. This was written by Tim Reynolds and published four days earlier than Mogul’s piece, on 24 January; this was a story about The Miami Heat basketball team with the title Heat to use COVID-19-sniffing dogs to screen fans at games:
“If you think about it, detection dogs are not new,” said Matthew Jafarian, the Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy. “You’ve seen them in airports, they’ve been used in mission critical situations by the police and the military. We’ve used them at the arena for years to detect explosives.”
It may be easier to spot the difference with the two paragraphs side-by-side.
|Tim Reynolds in the Associated Press article||Fred Mogul in the Gothamist|
|“If you think about it, detection dogs are not new,” said Matthew Jafarian, the Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy. “You’ve seen them in airports, they’ve been used in mission critical situations by the police and the military. We’ve used them at the arena for years to detect explosives.”||“If you think about it, detection dogs are not new,” Matthew Jafarian, the Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy, told the Associated Press. “You’ve seen them in airports, they’ve been used in mission critical situations by the police and the military. We’ve used them at the arena for years to detect explosives.”|
Quotations of quotations can be troublesome. You have got to use the original words – the quotation – as spoken (or written) but you still need to show that you are quoting a quotation. Is adding the four words “told the Associated Press” and hyperlinking them to the source enough to change the structure of the original paragraph? While there are not many different ways to say “Matthew Jafarian, the Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy,” it might have been better to find and use one of them, perhaps restructuring the speech tag competely. Something like this might avoid the problem:
As Miami Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy, Matthew Jafarian, said to Tim Reynolds of Associated Press, “If you think about it, detection dogs are not new. You’ve seen them in airports, they’ve been used in mission critical situations by the police and the military. We’ve used them at the arena for years to detect explosives.”
Except that this, apparently, is NOT the copy-pasting of which Fred Mogul was accused, according to all the various reports of his case. Mogul’s copy-pasting was in the draft, not the published version of the story; Mogul did not actually use the sentences he copy-pasted into his draft, with or without a recognized form of attribution.
Bang goes that notion – and we do not have copy of the draft. I wonder if that will be produced when the case goes to tribunal?
Where does all this leave us, what can we learn from all this? I am not altogether sure. Be especially careful with secondary quotations, for sure. Cite as you write, and make it very clear what is quotation (and note the source too at the time of writing) and what is paraphrase or summary (and note the source too at the time of writing), useful habits too. And be clear – must all sources in drafts be as fully acknowledged as in the final version, will there be consequences and accusations of plagiarism if they are not?
I will leave this for now. I did learn other things, some very odd things, about some of the sites which reported the story. Naive me, I had quite a surprise. I will not spin it out here – I shall leave that for my next article – watch this space!