Beware the “Romenesko Effect”

Jim Romenesko

Time was when a young journalist could recover from a lapse in judgment, learn from his or her mistake and get back on the career ladder. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said about having been fired for plagiarism when she was a 28-year-old reporter for the National Observer, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”

Those days are long gone. Whereas well-connected miscreants such as Mike Barnicle seem never to go away, young reporters caught stealing are briefly held up to national ridicule and then banished into some black hole. My friend Mark Jurkowitz calls it the “Romenesko Effect,” in tribute to Jim Romenesko’s compulsively read media-news site at Poynter.org.

The latest example is a reporter for Connecticut’s Middletown Press named Walt Gogolya, who left the paper after he was caught ripping off large sections of a story from the local Patch.com site. (I wouldn’t name Gogolya except that Romenesko writer Charles Apple — Romenesko himself is heading toward retirement — already has.)

The article falls into the news-of-the-weird category, as it involves the arrest of a man for field-dressing a deer in a parking lot. Those details may have made it harder for Gogolya to get away with his thievery. Worse for him is that the Press is owned by the Journal Register Co., which, under CEO John Paton and Connecticut regional editor Matt DeRienzo, has embarked on a public campaign of maximum transparency. Gogolya was not quietly asked to leave — he was thoroughly exposed in this editor’s note from DeRienzo. From there it was but a short hop to Romenesko and industry-wide humiliation.

I’m not entirely sure what to think about this. I think DeRienzo deserves credit for being open with his readers about what happened and how the company responded. I also did some poking around the tubes and discovered that Gogolya is not some kid fresh out of J-school. Nor do I have a problem with Romenesko airing such matters — quite the opposite, in fact. Yet these good decisions, defensible in themselves, may add up to something that’s disproportionate to the offense. Not that this is an excuse, but I’d be curious to know what Gogolya’s workload was like. Those are not easy jobs. But guess what? There’s no going back.

Essentially, young journalists need to know this: the world in which Nina Totenberg began her career no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. When it comes to journalism’s two cardinal sins, plagiarism and fabrication, it’s now one strike and you’re out.

I think it also means that those of us who teach journalism need to be as diligent about these matters as we possibly can. Far better to suffer an “F” and a trip to the student disciplinary board at 20 than to have your career ended just as you’re getting started.

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27 thoughts on “Beware the “Romenesko Effect”

  1. Bill Toscano

    You wrote:

    “Not that this is an excuse, but I’d be curious to know what Gogolya’s workload was like.”

    That does not matter in the least. If he’s overworked, which I doubt, he needs to talk to his editor.

    He violated the paper’s — and the industry’s — ethics policy.

    I can go back 30 years and remember people getting fired for these things.

    As far as your larger point goes, yes, I agree people deserve a second chance, and often they get them.

    And your constant slamming of Mike Barnicle, one of the greatest journalists of his generation (even with his mistakes) is getting tiring.

  2. Andy Stamer

    Glad you shared this, Dan. This only adds to the mistrust many in the public may feel for the media, though the way the editors put it this story out there, I am much more likely to go back and trust these same news outlets again.

    I definitley would have loved part of my J-school curriculum to be more on ethics. You’re right, facing an ‘F’ or disciplinary board is much better than making this mistake in the real world. But I think adding it to the curriculum would be a good preventative measure.

    The two cardinal sins of journalism speaks volumes because it shows a lack of credibility and integrity on the part of the journalist. And these are two things a journalist really needs. Without these, no one will want to talk to the journalist (unless they share an agenda) or trust that the journalist (or news outlet for that matter) will publish the truth. It leaves those media folks open to further mistrust, which is probably why they have to cut bait and not stand by the reporter.

    I feel sorry for the journalist, but it wasn’t a one strike and you’re out. There were many occassions outlined in the Middleton Press article, showing a pattern.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Andy: Just in case I left a misimpression, all good journalism programs emphasize ethics. But violations can be hard to catch.

  3. Andy Stamer

    Not at all Dan. I just don’t remember there being a hard focus on it in my J-school days. I think I was more scared from the libel discussions then.

    But it was/is still pretty clear: 1) Don’t make stuff up and 2) Don’t steal someone elses stuff (this was hammered into me from grade school “research” papers).

    The good thing with journalists is that no one remembers their name. Not being a native to this area, I had to look up Mike Barnicle. Obviously though, you can get away with it if you have a “good” name, and can sell advertising. That, unfortunately, is not the news, but the business of the news.

  4. Mike Benedict

    @Bill: You can’t demolish a no-name reporter for a sin, then the same treatment is levied at a big-name hack. Worse, Barnicle didn’t plagiarize once: he did it over and over, then lied about it. Whether you like it or not, Barnicle’s legacy is that he lifted other people’s work.

    As to the larger point of second chances, it would be worth knowing how quickly transgressors get rehired and in what field.

    As for J-schools and the “no plagiarism” conceit, that rule is part of every college’s student manual. There’s no way someone could have the smarts to enter college and not know plagiarism equals cheating and cheating is against the rules. So for J-schools to have to separately explain it seems redundant to me.

    Finally, I can’t remember a time when reporters didn’t take press releases or stories off the wire and recast them as their own, which essentially boils down to simply attaching their own name to what was already written. Not sure why that’s always been deemed acceptable, but it is.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Finally, I can’t remember a time when reporters didn’t take press releases or stories off the wire and recast them as their own, which essentially boils down to simply attaching their own name to what was already written. Not sure why that’s always been deemed acceptable, but it is.

      Mike: Huh? I’ve never worked at a place where that was “deemed acceptable,” even at small community papers in the ’80s. If you lightly rewrite a press release, you run it without a byline.

  5. BP Myers

    @Mike Benedict says: I can’t remember a time when reporters didn’t take press releases or stories off the wire and recast them as their own, which essentially boils down to simply attaching their own name to what was already written. Not sure why that’s always been deemed acceptable, but it is.

    Ron Borges will be surprised to hear this.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      BP: I never really understand why Borges was taken out back and shot, given that his column was always accompanied by a disclaimer noting his lack of original material. I get that he went beyond what was in the disclaimer and deserved to be disciplined, but to call it plagiarism is a stretch.

  6. BP Myers

    @Dan: I always thought Ron’s punishment was way too harsh for the crime, which I always thought was simply being sloppy with attribution, not plagiarism. Confess too that I’m a fan of his, and am happy to see he landed on his feet.

    Even so, I gotta believe he was even “sloppier” at times than the Globe chose to share with us, and a mutual departure was viewed as best for them both at the time.

  7. Andy Stamer

    Like I said, I probably just don’t remember it because it is so ingrained in me not to cheat by plagiarizing or fabricating.

    I have seen what Mike describes. Usually, a news release, if printed verbatim or with light rewrite is cast as a “Staff Reports” or something similar. But there are times where I’ve seen the release with someone’s name on it, with what looks like no or very small changes. Personally, I wouldn’t want to attach my name unless I further called people for additional quotes, and just pulled quotes or bits of info from the original news release.

    Back when I worked for a newspaper, when a press release came in we had to run, even if someone had to rewrite it to fit AP style, no one in the office usually wanted to take credit so it had to be from either a contributor or staff reports.

    The same training I’ve given people when talking to the media holds true to the byline as it does for a quote. Are you willing to put your name on it? Once your name is there, you’ve taken accountability for what is said and must endure the consequences.

  8. Brad Deltan

    I suspect this lesson can, and should, be tied into the quasi-rash of firings of journalists who have “crossed the line” from reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests into participating in them.

    That line is a lot more obvious to the generation most commonly at the editor / senior producer stage of their careers than it is to the generation many field reporters and associate producers tend to be in. They’re too used to collaboration. Too used to making themselves part of the never-ending story of themselves played out on Facebook and Twitter for the last five years. And, apparently, they’re not learning where that line is from j-school.

    Equally important, I don’t think they’re learning it from their editors and senior producers, either. I don’t deny that (on the face of it) Caitlin Curran crossed the line. But how many young journalists are essentially told by their superiors to “go out and find something interesting to post on our facebook page”? It’s one thing to blame a kid who plays with matches and starts a fire. It’s another thing to look at who gave the kid the matches and sat him in a puddle of gasoline, y’know?

  9. Nancy Mades

    When a reporter plagiarizes a story, it a personal failing of honesty and professional ethics and not the fault of an assignment editor or a J-school professor. Nina Totenberg, Mike Barnicle, and Walt Gogolya must have all been absent that day in second grade and all the years following when the teachers tell you that you’re not allowed to cheat off of other peoples’ papers.

  10. Andy Stamer

    Brad, brings up a good point. When is that line crossed between telling a story and being part of it? And how can a young journalist know where that line is, especially when the persons in journalism you have to look up to are the cable news 24/7 cycle?

    My point is that the Department of Defense has been very successful with embedding journalists with units. Simply put, those journalists who are embedded become like one of the boys. They pretend to be in the military and write some really great personal interest/feature stories about those they are embedded with. It takes them right to the front lines, but at the same time, makes them part of the story. So when a journalist at war makes themself part of the story, there are no real repercussions. Though when we want to emulate the success of people like Anderson Cooper as a media role model who gets out and talks to people (and is essentially forcing himself into their plight), we admonish them or fire them for making themselves part of the story. It seems like a double standard.

    Being friendly earns rapport, but so does good reporting. I’d say, be friendly, earn the rapport, but also let people know you’re a reporter. You can even use personal annectdotes to gain a footing with people you want to talk to, but it’s not like you’re going to say, “I told Joe X of Occuy that I feel his frustration.” You leave that part out and write about what Joe X told you his frustrations were.

  11. Brad Deltan

    When a reporter plagiarizes a story, it a personal failing of honesty and professional ethics and not the fault of an assignment editor or a J-school professor.

    Nancy, that is a woefully simplistic view of the situation. It fails the fundamental attribution error test, and assumes that everyone has the exact same professional ethics that you have.

    Clearly you have not been exposed to the bulk of modern college students that have an intrinsically hard time understanding the concept of “cheating” after being raised for 18 years to believe that collaborating and sharing ideas is the paragon of virtue, coupled with the elimination of competition for personal betterment from both academics and athletics in many, if not most, schools.

    After all, what does Facebook encourage everyone to do with a post they find interesting? To “share” it on their own Wall. What’s good in Facebook is a fireable offense in journalism. And we wonder why mixing journalism and social media is a bad idea…

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Brad: I find in my journalism classes that plagiarism is not a huge problem, and that students know the difference between sharing and passing something off as your own work. If anything, I think there was more plagiarism (and fabrication) in journalism 50 years ago than there is today. But I’ve caught a few, and I think all of us worry about those who might be falling through the cracks.

  12. Tony Schinella

    This post has really intrigued me for a lot of reasons.

    First, I agree with the overall point. There doesn’t seem to be second chances. But, you know, maybe there shouldn’t be.

    Let’s say you’re a clerk at a big box store. If you steal something of significance and you’re caught, you’re going to get fired. If you steal a lot of small things – say, sodas or candy bars, repeatedly to the point of someone noticing them missing – you’re going to get fired. So, why shouldn’t a journalist who steals – whether on the level of Barnicle or copying cop stories – get fired too? It might not seem fair comparing store clerks to journalists but it was the only thing that came into my mind.

    I’m also wondering whether the reporter admitted it. I don’t know if that matters or not but I wonder about it. The reason I wonder about it is that while the paper is claiming this is plagiarism and seems to have done a bit of detective work, it might be circumstantial. Depending on how the reporter and the Patch editor received the police information, it’s quite plausible that the reporter didn’t steal it at all.

    An example? A police press release sent to multiple sources and then re-written by said news outlets would have a similar feel and flow to it. A community resource officer sharing a police report and reading it identically to two different reporters could also have the same flow and feel, if written in a basic, quick format by the writers. Two reporters reading the police report on two different occasions could also re-script the information in a similar fashion. Multiple media entities that are competing in the same fishbowl are going to deliver similar stories.

    Now, I’m not trying to defend the reporter because he looks guilty. But I hope they have more than just two crime stories that are almost identical. Maybe a check of his computer history to see if he visited the story? Do they have an admission? I don’t know. But if the narrative is delivered to the reporters in a similar fashion by police, it’s going to be written in a similar manner.

    When I was working with reporters one-on-one, I made sure they understood that there were absolutely no circumstances and no excuses for stealing from another media outlet. In fact, I would press them to work harder and come up with their own ideas, to explore their communities, and ignore other media influences. They are more creative and compelling workers that way, I think. And, with so many stories to tell, there is no need to steal.

  13. Well on a related note, you read it and saw it on KingCast first:

    http://christopher-king.blogspot.com/2011/11/wdhd-channel-7-settles-defamation-case.html

    01 NOVEMBER 2011

    WHDH Channel 7 settles Defamation case with Joanna Marinova as Boston Herald and Jessica Van Sack file Interlocutory Appeal on Summary Judgment denial.

    Peace to All.

    Christopher King, J.D.
    http://KingCast.net — Reel News for Real People
    http://MortgageMovies.blogspot.com — Documenting Deceit
    617.543.8085/m
    617-507-8031/f

  14. George Brennan

    I have serious question: Why aren’t radio reporters held to the same standard? Every morning I hear my stories read on the radio with no attribution. I think plagiarism is a serious offense and have no problem with the one and you’re done. But why the industry double standard?

  15. Nancy Mades

    @Brad: While I am flattered by the implication that I enjoy a special relationship with the knowledge of right from wrong, I have to admit that it’s not true. As a young reporter I was lucky enough to work with and learn from many honest and ethical journalists (the author of this blog for one) who also knew that it is wrong to plagiarize. Today, as an educator, I can report that the over 1,300 students I’ve taught are all well aware – regardless of how many group projects we do in class or how many hours they spend on Facebook – that it’s wrong to copy someone else’s work and present it as their own. And they’re only in eighth grade. Do some of them still choose to cheat on assignments knowing full well that it’s wrong? You bet. That doesn’t make it any less wrong.

  16. Pingback: Plagiarism in the Romenesko age: One strike and you’re out | Bleacher Report – The Blog

  17. Mike Benedict

    @Brad: At the risk of piling on, perhaps I’m hung up on your choice of the world “collaboration.” If you’ve never met your “collaborator” and they are not aware of their “contribution,” I think even the most Madoffish kid in the bunch would recognize that it’s not “sharing” but “stealing.”

  18. Brad Deltan

    Nancy & Dan: your students are well aware that copying someone else’s work (and presenting it as their own) IN THE CLASSROOM is wrong. Are they as aware of that in other settings? Again, when a company mixes social media and journalism, they’re blurring that line quite a bit.

    Ethics are not an internal concept only. Ethics are inherently situational since they are a set of choices you make based on analysis of the situation at the moment.

    And speaking of which, the widespread (and profitable) “term paper mills” industry speaks a lot louder about just how much plagiarism is going on in the classroom than anything else. Maybe your kids really do know it’s wrong, but apparently that knowledge isn’t stopping them.

  19. Brad Deltan

    George: that’s a good question. I don’t know the official answer, but I suspect it’s for two reasons:

    1. The technical limitations of radio make it hard to give the detailed attribution you normally see in print.

    2. Most radio stories, even when they’re shamelessly copying from the local paper (and most radio news outlets do that every day) are extensively re-written because what works for print is far too wordy to work for radio. So even though it’s copying, there’s still a concept of original work in play.

    That said, a radio station SHOULD do some attribution when they’re reporting a story that they have not verified themselves. And I think you do see that. Quite frequently on WBUR or WNYC I’ll hear a newscaster say that “The Boston Globe is reporting that so-and-so did X…” or “The New York Daily News is reporting that Y happened…” or that “The Associated Press is reporting that Z country has invaded…”

  20. Just catching up to this post in the midst of a busy few days of storm-related problems in Connecticut.

    I doubt anyone feels worse about what this does to Walt personally than I do.

    We named him in our editor’s note about this incident for several reasons. One is that we had to identify the story, and explain what happened, and any reader or other news outlet (such as Romenesko) would find his name in two seconds. Another reason is that a quick investigation found more than one instance. Finally, key to the transparency that Dan talks about is building and maintaining a relationship of trust with our readers, sources, colleagues and competitors. We are opening up the process of our reporting and editing and involving readers at every step. Hiding behind phrasing such as “a reporter did this” or vaguely “a story ran that” is not how you build a relationship of trust.

    It was an easy but painful decision for exactly the dynamic Dan describes. We were pretty certain it would be “Romeneskoed,” especially because of the high-profile changes we’ve made in how a newspaper company operates, because it was a mainstream paper plagiarizing a Patch site and because it was a bizarre story.

    I do believe there are instances of plagiarism, or failure to ethically attribute, that are much more of a gray area than this. I’ve dealt with them. I’ve given people second chances before, especially at the very start of their career. But not when it is this blatant, clear-cut and absent of extenuating circumstances, whatever those might be.

  21. Bob Gardner

    Wow, 26 comments on this thread about plagiarism and not a single mention of the Boston Globe columnist who took a column off the internet, made a few minor, superficial changes and published it under his own name.

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