By Patrick Pexton
The Washington Post
Has technology made us all plagiarists? The Internet and Google have enabled every reporter, blogger and columnist to have what amounts to a million encyclopedias at their fingertips. We can search for material on virtually any subject and download a cornucopia of information in seconds to inform us before we begin using more traditional reporting tools.
At any time during the day, I have seven or eight Microsoft Word files open with interview notes and other information copied from various online sources and pasted into them, which I try always to label. I have four e-mail accounts open. I have two Internet browser windows open with maybe 10 tabs in each, taking me to a total of 20 Web sites.
It’s amazing that we all keep it straight. And sometimes we don’t. Perhaps that is what happened to William Booth, The Post’s Mexico City correspondent, who this week was accused of — and then quickly acknowledged — plagiarizing passages from a scientific journal article written by a University of Southern California professor, Andrea Hricko.
On Tuesday, Hricko wrote to me and Post editors, providing side-by-side comparisons of five passages from her December article in Environmental Health Perspectives and Booth’s front-page article of Jan. 13. Both were writing about the new and larger Panama Canal and its effects on ports in the United States. The Post concluded that four sentences out of Booth’s 1,500-word story “contained material copied in whole or in substantial part, without attribution.”
The Post then appended an editor’s note to the online story and published an apology in the Thursday newspaper: “It is The Post’s policy that the use of material from other newspapers or sources must be properly attributed. . . . The Post apologizes to Andrea Hricko, to Environmental Health Perspectives and to its readers for this serious lapse.”
In separate notes to Hricko, The Post’s new executive editor, Marty Baron, and Booth again apologized.
Booth wrote, “I am so sorry for what I did. It was a very serious lapse. . . . This was not intentional. It was an inadvertent and sloppy mistake. But that is no excuse, and I apologize for it.”
“This represented a serious violation of our ethics standards,” wrote Baron. “It was a disservice to you, and it breaks faith with our readers. You have our deepest apology, and you have our assurance that we are taking this matter very seriously.”
In addition, Baron told Hricko, “The Post will be taking severe and appropriate action with regard to Mr. Booth.”
Two editors familiar with the situation said that Booth, who had been announced as The Post’s next Jerusalem bureau chief, will not be fired. The Post reported Friday, citing “one person with direct knowledge of the matter,” that Booth will be suspended for three months. An editor confirmed the suspension, which will be without pay — the same punishment as reporter Sari Horwitz received in March 2011 in another plagiarism case.
I don’t know what led to the copied material. Baron, Booth and Hricko all declined to be interviewed.
After the editor’s note was published, Hricko wrote me an e-mail, stating: “I will only say that the Washington Post handled this with the utmost integrity and professionalism.”
I agree that the aftermath was handled well. Baron acted swiftly, investigated, apologized publicly and corrected the story.
But this is the third column I have written about plagiarism at The Post since I began as ombudsman, and there was a fourth case last September, while I was away, that I neglected. Each one has resulted in an extensive, apologetic editor’s note.
This indicates a problem that The Post needs to address, not just after the fact but also before it. The Post’s standards on this point are clear; they’re not at fault. They call plagiarism “one of journalism’s unforgivable sins.”
Perhaps the issue is lax enforcement. The Post could fire people on a first plagiarism violation. That would get people’s attention. But zero-tolerance policies rarely work, and every breach has context with mitigating and aggravating circumstances.
Should we just throw up our hands and blame it on new technologies that make vast tracts of information easily available for instant cutting and pasting? I’m not buying it. I can type the phrase “According to a story in The Atlantic” in eight seconds. I can insert into my story a hyperlink to another publication in 16 seconds. That’s fast, too.
The utopian vision that began with the Internet, continued through Napster and now animates social media is that everything belongs to everyone; share, link, tweet every bit of information. It’s just a commodity, after all, and we’re just news traders.
I think not. Those of us who labor hard over our reporting, our writing and our fact-checking to produce quality information should be the first to uphold the principle that we give credit where credit is due. Every day, every time.
This column was originally published in The Washington Post on January 18. 2013.