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In his latest brief, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton writesabout a story that ran in the Travel section on April 17. Freelance writer Robert Rigney plagiarized passages from a 2001 documentary about a trip to the Andy Warhol Family Museum of Moden Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia.The details of the piece, however, are less important than the conclusions Pexton draws.
Namely, the WaPo‘s increasing reliance on freelancers opens the paper up to plagiarism:
The paper can’t send staffers to Eastern Europe to fact-check every travel story. The Post is vulnerable to a one-shot deception by an unscrupulous freelancer.
“We can be ever-vigilant and spot-check what we can, but I’m afraid that if a writer is intent on plagiarizing or otherwise violating basic journalistic practices, given our resources it will indeed be difficult to always catch it,” added Joe Yonan, Travel editor.
That’s a sobering reality, particularly in a world where more publications, including the Post, are relying more on freelancers and on aggregation of reporting taken from other writers and publications. It’s a risky business.
I feel sure that this will happen again. The trouble is that it steadily erodes the Post‘s reputation for accuracy, which is a necessary ingredient to its survival.
Pexton’s words are well spoken. But at least on some level, the fact that they exist at all demonstrate that the Post might lose occasional battles against plagiarism but the publication is winning the war.
Let’s not, after all, pretend plagiarism didn’t exists before newspapers started to rely more heavily on freelancers. (Furthermore, big papers always have needed non-staffers to fill pages, but that’s another matter entirely.) Plagiarism was a problem in the past, and it will be a problem in the future.
The major step forward here is addressing the issue. The transparency of Pexton’s post is far more important to the future of the Post — and its credibility — than a couple instances of plagiarism. Preventing every single writer — staffers, freelancers, everyone — from copying without attribution is a futile endgame; what really matters is how you handle the matter when it occurs.