The John Merrill debate: As journalists and educators, this much we know for certain

Saturday, December 8, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:51 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Anna Koeppel, a sophomore pre-journalism student at the Missouri School of Journalism, walked into Associate Dean Brian Brooks’ office after her reporting class one day last month. She had with her a story she had done for the campus newspaper, The Maneater, based on her telephone interviews, and a column from the Columbia Missourian. She said the column included some quotes she had gathered from two sources that were used without credit to her paper.

“Here is what I think happened, and what would you do about this?” she asked Brooks.

His heart sank. He had known John Merrill, the column writer and a Missouri professor emeritus, for nearly 40 years.

Brooks sent the young reporter to see Tom Warhover, executive editor at the Missourian. She showed her story and the column to Warhover, who then contacted Merrill. The following Friday, in his online editor’s column, Warhover told readers that Merrill had used quotes taken from an article in The Maneater without crediting the newspaper or the author – a violation of published Missourian policy and the journalism school’s teaching standard. He also wrote that the Missourian would no longer be running Merrill’s column.

Warhover’s decision, and Merrill’s reaction to it, have set off a viral wave of commentary within the Journalism School and throughout the news industry. Two issues are at stake: Whether the use of uncredited quotes is plagiarism, and whether the punishment – public disclosure and cancellation of the column – fit the transgression, a transgression Merrill called “unintentional plagiarism.”

The commentators have included many friends of Merrill’s, but also some of the industry’s most notable voices, including Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, and Edward Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

Much of the debate has been more like an attack, accusing Warhover of overzealousness in his treatment of what many deem a “misdemeanor” offense. Wasserman used the words “vindictiveness,” “self-righteousness” and “callousness” to describe the response to the misconduct. Clark said the “P” word has gained such heavy stigma that Warhover’s action was like pinning a scarlet “A” on Merrill. (For the record, Warhover’s public column never used the word “plagiarism.”)

Certainly reasonable professionals can disagree about the proportionality of punishment for an offense.

But at risk of getting lost in all that rapid-fire Internet finger-pointing is the offense itself: whether taking someone else’s work and using it, without credit, is really plagiarism.

Clark, Wasserman and some others maintain it’s not. Or not really.

But at the Missouri School of Journalism, it most definitely is.

We, like our colleagues at Poynter, are serious about our role in setting and maintaining standards of the craft. That’s why we teach our students – the next generation of professional journalists – the full range of offenses that constitute plagiarism. Among them: using the work of others, including quotes, without attribution.

Clark used to agree with that standard. In the March 1983 issue of Washington Journalism Review he wrote: “Even today reporters loot and pillage other newspapers and magazines, using quotations and information without attribution or verification.”

In that same essay, he compiled a list of “dangerous and unprofessional” practices. One of those: “Lifting from other newspapers and magazines.”

Wasserman has parsed this as a difference between what’s accepted practice in a reported article versus an opinion column; he has written that he thinks it is “defensible” to lift quotes for the latter.

By that reasoning, we could lift any quotes gathered in any work and claim it as our own for this piece because we are writing opinion. But would that be fair to the people who did the original work? And would it be of service to the public we serve – people who have less and less clue where information comes from in the Internet age, where information is fast-forwarded like an out-of-control game of telephone?

Besides, what assurance does a column writer – or a reporter – have that the “original” material is accurate, was obtained professionally or is, indeed, original? Should we teach our students to bank their bylines or their mastheads on a guess?

The Missourian has a written policy against using material from other publications without attribution. Course syllabuses warn students they could fail and face further discipline if they commit plagiarism. When Koeppel, a sophomore, opens her primary news reporting textbook to p.522, she sees Roy Peter Clark’s own definition of plagiarism, which includes this: “Sometimes writers steal the research of others without attribution.”

In his Washington Journalism Review essay of 1983, Clark eloquently explained why such theft is so serious: “Plagiarism poisons the relationship between writer and reader.”

We agree.

And we owe it to our students, and to the public, not to waffle on that standard.

As for the rest of the debate – the issue of consequence – this is where the line is less bright.

Once Warhover learned of the policy violation, he consulted with other faculty members. The agreement: The Missourian must act and must announce the action. To deal with the issue internally would surely have invited industry criticism that we were hiding a breach of standards to protect a former and respected faculty member.

Our students, who know the punishment they would face, were watching. Would we take action? Would we practice the transparency we preach? Would we model the professional standards we teach?

Or would we circle the wagons and cover it up?

So consequences were a given. What they should be – that has been the subject of continued debate, here and throughout the industry.

In his Nov. 9 column, Warhover wrote, “Several journalists and journalism educators I spoke with referred to the use as the ethical equivalent of a misdemeanor, not a felony.

“I believe the Missourian, and the School of Journalism, must hold itself to a higher standard.

“The newspaper’s policy prohibits ‘using material from other publications without attribution.’”

“As such, the Missourian will no longer run columns by Professor Merrill.”

In forums since, including the Poynter Web site and, professional ethicists, practicing journalists, former students and colleagues of Merrill, and Missouri faculty members have been divided over both the allegation of plagiarism and the punishment exacted.

We stand firm on the former: by any reasonable definition the use of material gathered by another writer, without crediting that writer, is plagiarism.

The debate about the latter will and should continue. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to view the punishment as harsher than the transgression deserved.

While we don’t think there is such a thing as “unintentional plagiarism,” we do think that intent, or as in Merrill’s case, lack of intent to defraud, could be a mitigating factor. We would certainly take that into account for a student – someone new to the standards and learning – caught in a similar situation.

So would it have been possible to uphold the standards of the Missourian and the profession without inflicting the humiliation of a public dismissal? In retrospect, an editor’s column that explained those standards, apologized for the failure to meet them and allowed Merrill to make his own apology might have been a reasonable option.

But equivocation on the issue of consequence does not mean equivocation in our condemnation of plagiarism. We who teach and practice journalism must hold ourselves to the highest of standards and the clearest of transparency, even as we practice compassion.

The relationship Roy Clark described between writer and reader is both precious and fragile. We must not risk poisoning it.

Professor Daryl Moen, emeritus professor George Kennedy, professor Jacqui Banaszynski, who holds the Knight Chair in Editing, and professor Charles Davis, who is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center, all teach at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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