Monday, May 16, 2005

Within Limits, I Favor Tracking Errors and Checking For Plagiarism

This is the fifth of six blogs commenting on the principal recommendations of a New York Times panel that studied steps to make the paper more credible with its readers. Since, the NYT is a model for many practices in American journalism, there is no question the panel's views will be carefully scrutinized far and wide.

Today, I'm taking up the panel's recommendations for setting up an errors tracking system, and developing software capable of detecting plagiarism when accusations arise.

This is an opportune day to talk about such subjects, since we are right in the middle of a furore over an apparent Newsweek error that has resulted in at least 17 deaths in riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, after the magazine published a report from an anonymous source that U.S. soldiers may have flushed a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, down a toilet at the Guantanamo facility for suspected terrorists in Cuba. The New York Times publishes a story on this controversy today on Page 1 and the L.A. Times has a story on Page 3.

Newsweek has published a rather turgid half-apology, suggesting its source has now altered his story. The Pentagon, meanwhile, expresses anger at the publication of a report that has put the U.S. military in such a bad light, especially since they say it is wrong and may never have been solidly confirmed. One of the Newsweek reporters involved. incidentally, is Michael Isikoff, who had an important role in breaking open the Monica Lewinsky story during the Clinton Administration.

Monday afternoon, after much stalling and explaining, Newsweek formally retracted the original Periscope item that led to the controversy. By that time, it was obvious that the magazine had been badly damaged by the episode.

At a time of war, when the interests of the nation are so clearly at stake, journalistic errors can obviously have unusually far reaching consequences.

But one thing that ought to be made clear is that journalistic errors are going to be quite common, since, as I've said before, journalists are seldom right on the spot when things happen or decisions are made. It is a profession that necessarily uses many second and third hand reports, and everyone has to realize that journalism is not a perfect science.

Keeping track of errors, detecting plagiartsm and punishing it, are obviously important, but so is trust in a newsroom. Editors and reporters cannot always be looking at each other suspiciously, or the daily work of newspapers will be impeded. No one advocates that papers appear every three days, so that journalists will have a longer time to check for errors.

So I am glad to see that the New York Times panel, in making its recommendation for the development of software to detect plagiarism has seen fit to suggest that such software only be employed when accusations of plagiarism arise, and not just willy-nilly all the time.

Most people at the L.A. Times, where I worked for 39 years, tried honestly to do their best, I found, and the suggestion sometimes made outside journalism that journalists are running about all the time printing sensationalistic reports and plagiarizing are, I firmly believe, far too extreme.

Yes, there can be excesses, and we had a few at the Times, but I want to emphasize, these were uncommon occurrences. Inadvertent mistakes may be more common.

Like police departments keeping track of complaints made by the public against police officers, there may be good reason to keep track of how many errors reporters and editors make, so that the most frequent offenders can be identified and their practices improved.

But errors will arise and just because someone makes an error is not, in and of itself, sufficient reason for punishing them.

Plagiarism is a different story. You don't want plagiarists on the staff, and when they are identified, their employment ought to be terminated.

Tomorrow, I will take up the remaining two major recommendations, these for increasing coverage of middle America, rural areas and religion, and establishing a system to evaluate attacks on the newspaper's work..

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