Washington Posts fires blogger, then dives for cover

It’s fascinating to compare these two accounts of the sacking of washingtonpost.com White House Watch blogger Dan Froomkin:

Hat tip: Jay Rosen

UPDATE July 7: Froomkin joins huffingtonpost.com as Washington DC bureau chief

Guardian silent on plagiarism question

It’s amazing how unresponsive some media organizations can become when they are called to account.

A case in point is a British website, guardian.co.uk, the online edition of the Guardian newspaper.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a column by one of its media commentators, Rory O’Connor, sounded familiar. So I checked into it.

Sure enough, two passages in O’Connor’s column — one of them a very long paragraph of a hundred words — were virtually identical to a news release put out by Unesco a month earlier. If you’re curious, compare the extracts at the end of this post.

I raised the matter in the comments section of O’Connor’s blog, giving my name, as I always do, and my email address. My comment was duly published but there was never a response to my request for an explanation.

I then emailed the editor of the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section, in which O’Connor’s column had appeared. Again, no response.

Finally I emailed the Guardian’s “readers’ editor” on May 3, almost three weeks ago. I think that’s plenty of time for a response, and I’ve received none.

As a long-time journalist and editor, I find it astounding that a) the Guardian seems unconcerned about what looks like plagiarism, something most journalists regard as a cardinal sin, and b) that it doesn’t even respond to a reader’s legitimate question in a timely manner.

I’d like to close with two points:

  1. If a writer wants to use passages from a news release or anywhere else, they should always quote and acknowledge the source.
  2. Anyone who writes a “column” or “opinion piece” ought to be able to come up with original words to express original thoughts — that’s really the whole idea of being a columnist, or a blogger for that matter.

Continue reading

Innocent man identified as pedophile by Ottawa Citizen

On Wednesday the Ottawa Citizen ran a photo on the front page of its City section of a man whom it identified as a pedophile with four convictions.

He was, in fact, an innocent man whose misfortune was to have the same first and last names as the pedophile [although a different middle name].

Yes, mistakes happen, but this is the sort of thing that causes enormous suffering and damage to an individual – not to mention undermining the media’s credibility. I hope the Citizen takes it seriously and – at the very least – reviews its procedures.

The paper has apologized, but one wonders whether the harm, to the innocent man and to the paper, can ever be totally undone.

[hat tip Torontoist]

We don’t really want to know

Poll graphic: globeandmail.com 

I don’t know about you, but I find the trend in today’s globeandmail.com poll quite disturbing.

As of early this afternoon, more than three quarters of respondents felt it was NEVER acceptable for “a bureaucrat or employee to leak sensitive internal documents”. Barely one in five thought it would be acceptable if the leak were “in the public interest”. That’s based on 27,459 responses.

So what’s this telling us?

  • Are Canadians overwhelmingly inclined to obey authority, no matter the consequences?
  • Are they content with the information that journalists are able to compile unaided, or that companies and governments are prepared to dispense?
  • Maybe it’s a privacy issue, with people fearing that their personal data could be revealed.
  • I suspect most respondents so far have been viewing the poll from work computers and may be taking a cautious approach. It will be interesting to see if proportions change when more people are at home at the end of the day.

Canada has a new Federal Accountability Act, proclaimed last December, which includes provisions to protect whistleblowers working for the federal government. But perhaps Canadians aren’t convinced that’s such a good idea. A fascinating area for further research.

UPDATE – May 16, 2007 – Later results showed a slight swing in favour of leaking in the public interest:

  • Always: 2%, 589 votes
  • If in the public interest: 22%, 6373 votes
  • Never: 76%, 22097 votes
  • Total: 29059 votes

WTF? CBS bans comments on Obama stories

Are the people running CBSNews.com out of their minds? Or are they just letting panic drive their decisions?

According to CBS blog Public Eye, the CBS website will no longer permit readers to post comments on stories about presidential candidate Barack Obama, but WILL continue to permit comments on stories about other candidates.

Public Eye says:

The reason for the new policy … is that stories about Obama have been attracting too many racist comments.

“It’s very simple,” Mike Sims, director of News and Operations for CBSNews.com, told me. “We have our Rules of Engagement. They prohibit personal attacks, especially racist attacks. Stories about Obama have been problematic, and we won’t tolerate it.”

CBSNews.com says it doesn’t have the resources to pre-screen comments.

Well for goodness sakes, there are a number of ways they could tackle that problem, including filtering technology, community moderators, and requiring commenters to register and earn the right to post without pre-screening.

In the meantime, if CBS can’t handle the commenting system it has created, then it should turn off automatic commenting on ALL candidate stories. To do otherwise, is to risk skewing the political debate. Not to mention the likelihood that those racist comments against Obama will simply be posted on other stories.

CBC withholds killer’s multimedia manifesto, NBC seizes branding opportunity

The CBC is the only major Canadian news website choosing not to run pictures and video that Virigina Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui mailed to US network NBC.

CBC editor-in-chief Tony Burman said on his blog that the material would not be broadcast on CBC’s radio or television programs either:

…we debated the issue throughout the evening and made the decision that we would not broadcast any video or audio of this bizarre collection. On CBC Television, Radio and CBC.ca, we would report the essence of what the killer was saying, but not do what he so clearly hoped all media would do. To decide otherwise – in our view -would be to risk copycat killings.

Speaking personally, I have long admired NBC News and I am sure my admiration of their journalists will endure. But I think their handling of these tapes was a mistake. As I watched them last night, sickened as I’m sure most viewers were, I imagined what kind of impact this broadcast would have on similarly deranged people. In horrific but real ways, this is their 15 seconds of fame.

I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware they they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts.

Commenters on Burman’s blog are divided about whether CBC made the right call.

Canada.com, canoe.ca, thestar.com and globeandmail.com all used the photographs and images supplied by Cho, as did major news sites around the world. No doubt they are by now also available on photo and video sharing sites and blogs.

Most major Canadian newspapers also had at least one of Cho’s gun-toting pictures on the front page of their print editions today — notable exceptions being the Winnipeg Free Press [which pointed from a small picture of grieving students on page 1 to a story about Cho’s manifesto on page 6] and Toronto commuter freebie 24 Hours [which led with a move to ban incandescent lightbulbs and the stranding of 100 sealing ships in ice off Newfoundland].

As for NBC’s handling of the situation. I don’t think many people would be surprised by their decision to broadcast.

But did anyone else feel as uneasy as I did that NBC had placed its logo on all the images before releasing them to other media? I can understand the network’s marketers probably saw this as a great branding opportunity, but I think it may actually have the opposite effect. Do you really gain when you associate your brand with a mass murderer seeking fame?

It was clearly Cho’s intention to use NBC for his own notoriety. With the logo, it almost looks in some photographs as if he was right there on NBC property.

>> More about the debate over publication at Huffington Post’s Eat the Press

>> Apr 22, 2007: The CBC’s Tony Burman in an audio interview with On the Media

Advertising news coverage makes sense

Google Search - 3pm EDT April 17, 2007

As a little experiment yesterday afternoon, I put the words “shooting at virginia tech” into the Google search engine. And I wasn’t surprised to see that three paid search results (based on Google’s AdWords system) popped up on top.

You can see the results above (I have edited the image slightly in order to make it more compact than on my high-resolution monitor but the essential layout is unchanged).

The premium paid result spot was occupied by the New York Times. Then there were two paid sidebar results, one by a company that wants you to download a news toolbar (no thanks!) and the other from a website called the First Post.

Then there were three “natural” search results from Google News, followed by the natural search results from Google’s regular index of web pages (not shown in my screenshot).

Blogger Tod Maffin says it’s “sick” that companies bought AdWords in the wake of such a tragedy, but I disagree – at least in the case of the media companies. Broadcasters and publishers often buy offline advertising to tell you about their news coverage (e.g. television stations advertising on afternoon radio or newspapers advertising on evening TV).

And in this case, the NY Times paid search result may have performed a valuable service, because the first natural search result (again, not shown on my screenshot) was actually to a news story headlined Shooting suspect caught in Blacksburg (huh?!). That story turned out to be eight months old.

CBS still covering up

Katie Couric’s podcast commentary on Barack Obama [“Is America ready to elect a president who grew up praying in a mosque?”] has been removed from CBSnews.com and replaced by an extensively edited text-only version that highlights new wording while giving no indication of what was removed. [jadegreen, however, compares the edited commentary with the original on her blog.]

There’s no explanation for the changes and, just as in the earlier plagiarism case, CBSnews.com has disabled comments on this item.

So much for accountability.

Footnote: Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has an amusing look at the practice of ghostwriting for television.