Washington Post Suspends Reporter Amid Plagirism Scandal

Late yesterday, The Washington Post admitted that one of its reporters had plagarized significant portions of at least two articles about the aftermath of the Tuscon shootings in January:

The Washington Post suspended one of its most seasoned reporters Wednesday after editors determined that “substantial” parts of two recent news articles were taken without attribution from another newspaper.

Sari Horwitz, a longtime Post investigative reporter, was suspended for three months for plagiarizing sections of stories that first appeared in the Arizona Republic. The stories concerned the investigation of and legal proceedings for Jared Lee Loughner, the Arizona man accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others in Tucson in January.

Horwitz copied two paragraphs from a Republic story that described provisions of a federal civil rights law when she wrote an article that was first published on The Post’s Web site March 4. A second story, first appearing online on March 10, included 10 paragraphs from a Republic story about a search of Loughner’s home. Both stories appeared in the newspaper the day after they went up online.

Plagiarism has long been one of the most serious ethical violations in journalism. Reporters often cite other news sources for information that they haven’t gathered themselves, but the standard practice is to paraphrase the material and attribute the information to its source.

Some news organizations, including The Post, have fired reporters for copying another journalist’s work and presenting it as their own. “For a long time, it was viewed as an excommunication sin, beyond mortal sin,” said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University. “But nowadays, editors try to look at the full context of what happened and why it happened” before rushing to punish. He added that digital technology and increased competition via the Internet make such errors of judgment more likely.

The Republic’s editor, Randy Lovely, alerted Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli to the similarities in the Republic and Post stories in an e-mail Monday. Brauchli reviewed Horwitz’s work and agreed that material had been used improperly.

The Post issued an apology to readers on its Web site Wednesday and is running an editor’s note on A2 of Thursday morning’s newspaper.

“We [took] action that we think is appropriately severe and reflects the seriousness with which we view this transgression,” Brauchli said in an interview. He said he had conducted a review of all of Horwitz’s published work this year and found no other evidence of plagiarism. Editors also saw nothing of concern when reviewing dozens of stories she wrote before this year, he said.

In a statement Wednesday, Horwitz said: “I am deeply sorry. To our readers, my friends and colleagues, my editors, and to the paper I love, I want to apologize.” She added: “Under the pressure of tight deadlines, I did something I have never done in my entire career. I used another newspaper’s work as if it were my own. It was wrong. It was inexcusable. And it is one of the cardinal sins in journalism. I apologize to the Arizona Republic and its reporters and editors. I accept the punishment that The Washington Post has given to me. And I am grateful the paper will allow me to return. I hope to come back a better journalist and a better person.”

Horwitz electronically cut and pasted material from the Republic and then placed it in a lengthy Microsoft Word document with other notes she had taken about the shooting, according to people familiar with the matter. Under deadline pressure, she transferred some of this material to her stories, delivering it to her editors as if she had written it.

Horwitz, who joined The Post in 1984, is one of the newspaper’s most decorated reporters. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize with her colleague Scott Higham in 2002 for a series about the deaths of foster children under the care of D.C.’s child-welfare agencies.

The obvious question, which the Post doesn’t address in its own apology, is whether this was the first time that Horwitz had done this.

 

FILED UNDER: Media, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    The obvious question, which the Post doesn’t address in its own apology, is whether this was the first time that Horwitz had done this.

    How does this paragraph, which you quoted, not address that, Doug?

    “We [took] action that we think is appropriately severe and reflects the seriousness with which we view this transgression,” Brauchli said in an interview. He said he had conducted a review of all of Horwitz’s published work this year and found no other evidence of plagiarism. Editors also saw nothing of concern when reviewing dozens of stories she wrote before this year, he said.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    Doug, from you: “The obvious question, which the Post doesn’t address in its own apology, is whether this was the first time that Horwitz had done this.”

    From the article you quoted: “He said he had conducted a review of all of Horwitz’s published work this year and found no other evidence of plagiarism. Editors also saw nothing of concern when reviewing dozens of stories she wrote before this year, he said.”

    Doug, any chance you just cut and pasted that article without actually reading it? 😉

  3. Horwitz has been working for the Post for more than a year

  4. Boyd says:

    Hence,

    Editors also saw nothing of concern when reviewing dozens of stories she wrote before this year, he said.

  5. mattb says:

    Horwitz electronically cut and pasted material from the Republic and then placed it in a lengthy Microsoft Word document with other notes she had taken about the shooting, according to people familiar with the matter. Under deadline pressure, she transferred some of this material to her stories, delivering it to her editors as if she had written it.

    The reporters I’ve worked with have confessed that they have ongoing fears about making this sort of mistake.

    Likewise, as a grad student, I worry about exactly the same thing.

    The great thing about technologies like the web, pdfs, and ebooks is the support of copy-and-paste. The dangerous thing when you are building background notes is copy-and-paste.

    Some app’s, like Evernote and OneNote, are pretty good about including the reference URL with the text snippet. But if you are using Word or a similar program to store your background material, this type of mistake is all too common. Given how quickly Tucson unfolded, this type of mistake is pretty understandable (James’ article on Twitter Standard Time is a really good thing to think with as well).

    BTW… as far as if this happened before, you can bet that people are right now feeding her past stories into Google News and plagerism software to check on exactly that. For the moment, I’m prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    Doug, per Boyd’s and my comments, I think it’s time to just say “mea culpa” and move on…

  7. Loviatar says:

    Boyd / MarkedMan,

    Don’t you know Doug is a republican, he’ll never admit he made a mistake.

    mea cupla is not in his dictionary.

  8. TG Chicago says:

    Weird. A couple of times I’ve seen Joyner commenting on stories that he clearly didn’t read all the way through. Now Mataconis is doing it, too.

    Guys, if you’re going to make someone else’s story the basis of a blog post, surely Step One should be “Read the entire story”.

  9. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    It’s good to see another standard fall to the zeitgeist. All standards are just surreptitious oppression.

    “An excommunication sin, beyond mortal sin…” Self-importance will out.

    Microsoft made me do it ???

    Give me a break.

  10. bandit says:

    “Under deadline pressure, she transferred some of this material to her stories, delivering it to her editors as if she had written it.”

    The dog ate my homework

  11. mattb says:

    Microsoft made me do it ???

    I’m assuming that was directed at me.

    To be clear: it was negligent behavior. And it was plagiarism.

    What I was writing to is the question: Was it intentional….

    Also note, I was not blaming the tools. But I was suggesting that the tools play a part in the broader equation. And also that the general scenario that was given is more than plausible for anyone who does this sort of routine writing — especially under moments of heightened stress.

    Understanding that helps us decide what to think of the rest of her work. If this is a pattern, that’s a huge problem and one worth firing over. If it was a signal infraction? That’s something that should not be forgotten, but also shouldn’t be grounds for dismissal.