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Merrill's columns should be reinstated

Saturday, December 8, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:06 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

There is a growing feeling among professionals in the news business — both academics and working journalists — that John Merrill, a professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism, was incorrectly accused of plagiarism and unjustifiably punished publicly by canceling his weekly column in the Columbia Missourian. That feeling is not unanimous, but it is strong.

Many of these professionals say if there was a breakdown in journalistic practice, it was as much the fault of the Missourian’s editors as it was Merrill’s. And if there was an ethical problem involved, the transgression belonged as much to the Missourian’s staff and executive editor Tom Warhover, as Merrill.

Questions posed to journalists

1. After reading the two pieces, do you think John Merrill committed plagiarism? 2. Why? 3. If you do not think it was plagiarism was there a fault on Merrill’s part? How would you describe it? How would you discipline a reporter committing the same error? 4. Did the copy editors have any responsibility for the story? 5. Does your paper have any policy about attribution of quotes to the person who made them as well as the publication in which they first appeared? How would you handle this situation if it happened in your organization? What do you think of Merrill’s “confession?”


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The incident is gaining national attention, so it is important to air the views of these professionals in the Missourian since it was here that Merrill received such a severe blow.

Professor Edward Wasserman, the Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., posted a note on the Internet ridiculing the charge that Merrill had committed plagiarism and wrote: “Having reviewed the various articles, I have to say I think the ethical basis for his dismissal was flimsy and the firing unwarranted.” Wasserman, like several of the professionals queried by graduate students in a course I teach, said that Merrill’s journalistic transgression, if there was one, was failing to attribute quotations in a column to an article in the student newspaper, The Maneater. The quotations were from a faculty member and the dean of the College of Arts and Science explaining why a new department of women’s and gender studies was being established at the university.

Certainly, Merrill erred in not giving the attribution for the quotes. He should have credited The Maneater, at least. But equally as culpable were the Missourian editors who apparently did not ask Merrill where he got the quotations and require him to give the attribution. Editors are the fact-checkers of last resort in newspaper work. It is their responsibility to seek out inaccuracy, sloppiness or other misuse of the language.

Paul Janensch, a professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and former editor of three newspapers, including the Louisville Courier-Journal, answered our questionnaire by writing that Merrill did commit plagiarism of a “minor sort” for which the discipline should have been that he be “properly scolded.” He added:

“You didn’t ask, but I will add that I think the editor’s boss should tell the editor to have a change of heart and rehire Merrill.”

John X. Miller, former ombudsman of the Detroit Free Press and now director of community relations for the Detroit Media Partnership wrote he did not think Merrill plagiarized.

Why?

“He used partial quotes from previous material and didn’t lift verbatim the essence of the information from the previous sources. Use of quote marks to me signifies that he wasn’t stealing or passing off those words as his.”

Professor Linda Steiner of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and Deborah Kornmiller, reader advocate of the Arizona Daily Star, both said Merrill was guilty of “carelessness” in his lack of attribution, but both also said the Missourian editors were part of the problem. As Kornmiller wrote: “Merrill’s editors and those around him could and should have saved him. Surely they read the original piece. When a columnist writes something that is sure to rile what might be considered a sacred cow, I would expect there to be a conversation with the writer.”

Gene Foreman, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now a professor of journalism at Penn State University, posted a blog that said in part:

“I empathize with the editors of the Missourian in the decision they had to make. Lifting quotes is wrong, and an editor has to worry about sending the wrong signals to the staff – not to mention the paper’s responsibility to the audience. However, I would not have reached the decision the Missourian editors did.

“There are mitigating factors here. First, lifting quotes is a lesser transgression than plagiarism. Labeling this as plagiarism implies that the columnist deliberately stole someone else’s phrasing. My reading of the Merrill column gives no hint of malicious intent. The columnist simply was giving background.

“Second, the profession has indeed changed the rules about attributing quotes, a development that might have escaped Professor Merrill’s notice. Not so many years ago, journalists considered published quotes to be in the public domain. The profession wisely has reconsidered. The current conventional wisdom is that secondhand quotes must be credited to the journalist who heard them, both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of transparency about where the information came from.”

Foreman’s third mitigation, expressed by almost everyone who commented, is that Merrill deserved better: “Third, and maybe this should be first, there is Professor Merrill’s distinguished service as a pioneering scholar in the field of journalism ethics. We owe him. All of these factors add up to handling this matter discreetly instead of disgracing an 83-year-old man who has given so much and has been a towering strength in the principles of responsible and ethical journalism for almost a half century.”

Two respondents did think Merrill committed serious plagiarism. Luann Sharpe, public editor of the Toledo (Ohio) Blade and Chris Hanson of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland both equated lack of attribution in this case to plagiarism, but they did not think firing was necessarily appropriate. Asked what the punishment should be, Hanson said if it was a first offense, suspension would be appropriate. Sharpe was less specific, writing that punishment for the offense could range from a talking-to to discharge.

Sharpe and Hanson believe as strongly as the Missourian editors that Merrill did commit serious plagiarism but even they do not find that the punishment fit the crime. So the bottom line is that for decency to Merrill, for the integrity of the Columbia Missourian and the good of the Missouri School of Journalism — the world’s first and arguably the most highly regarded such institution, a month away from its centennial year, — Merrill should receive an apology and have his column reinstated.

Students who contirbuted to the survey of journalists are Cliff Ainsworth, Fan Bu, Elizabeth Ann Peer,; Heather Perne, Mike Shulman, Xiaoxian Ye. Stuart Loory holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism.


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Comments

clayton lovelace December 10, 2007 | 1:35 p.m.

I've already expressed my disgust and shared my belief that he made a mistake but it wasn't a fireable offense.
Bottom line. I think someone wanted him out and used plagiarism as an excuse.
Until there is an acknowledgement that the punishment did not fit the crime, I wash my hands of my journalism school.
Jack Lovelace
BJ, 1968

(Report Comment)
edward allen December 10, 2007 | 1:42 p.m.

I disagree and think Merrill's column was properly dropped. Unaddressed by Loory is how Merrill's column outrageously violated Missourian policy of lifting quotes without crediting the newspaper or the author. If Merrill were an intern or starting out in the newspaper profession, I would agree that a reprimand would be in order. But Merrill is a professional with 40 years of experience and a professor of journalism as well. We expect higher standards of performance from experts in their profession, and Merrill failed to meet these performance standards with his shameful misconduct. I also take issue with Loory's contention that Missourian editors share responsibility for the failures of this column. This is the old National Lampoon "Animal House" defense that we're all guilty to some degree, and so no one should be singled out. The editors could have saved him, but Merrill was a trusted veteran. For these reasons, I conclude Merrill is justly condemned not to write for the Missourian again.

(Report Comment)
Knox Harrington December 10, 2007 | 8:50 p.m.

The bottom line is this: if a student had done the same, he or she would have been dismissed from either their class or from reporting for the Missourian. A professor emeritus with forty years of news writing experience should have 1) known that appropriating the work of others without attribution is wrong and unethical and 2) that the consequences of doing such a thing at a newspaper, wherein student journalist are trained, would be severe. What standard would it set if Warhover had excused the unethical actions of a professor emeritus while young students looked on?

That Merrill's column was expressing unpopular or controversial views isn't germane to the argument, and smacks of a red herring being thrown in the face of logic.

Knox Harrington (The Video Artist)
Current Student/Missourian Journalist

(Report Comment)
James Foster December 11, 2007 | 8:24 p.m.

Given that Merrill is a distinguished 80-year-old professor with an unblemished past, one could argue his punishment was excessive. Then again, if Merrill worked for me there's a great chance I would have fired him, as I would do any plagiarist. He had to know better.

Secondly, I don't know too many editors in these lean, do-more-with-less times who would have time on deadline to question the sourcing of a distinguished 80-year-old professor, let alone assume he had taken someone else's quotes without attribution. Some journalists are expected to be self-policemen.

J. Todd Foster
Managing Editor
Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier

(Report Comment)
Michael Abrams December 14, 2007 | 10:08 a.m.

Prof. Merrill deserves better.

Someone should figure out how to solve this problem. Merrill needs to be given space to write a column about the importance of attribution and what he's learned about editors' fears of plagiarism. The editor needs to write a column about how, if it had the time, the paper would have called the writer to ask where the quotes were taken from. Or something. This ought not to be a zero sum game where everyone loses. It's the holiday season and it just ain't worth it.

Michael E. Abrams, Ph.D.
Professor of Journalism
Florida A&M University

(Report Comment)
Raymond R. Wong December 14, 2007 | 12:09 p.m.

Professor Merrill was one of my professors when I was an aspirant journalist still wet behind my ears back in 1957-59. I retired in 2004 after 49 years as a print and broadcast journalist, journalism professor and dean as well as TV station general manager.
To those who would so readily get rid of a columnist who as a distinguished professor having contributed so genersouly to journalism education in general, media ethics in particular, I really don't know what to say other than I'm sick to my heart to think what my alma mater has come to! Professor Merrill might or might not--the jury is still out--have committed plagarism; but for those who'd rushed to judgment, remember your Scripture: "Let he who's without sin, cast the first stone."

Raymond R. Wong
BJ '59
Hong Kong

Posted at 0117 Saturday, 12/15/07 Hong Kong time.

(Report Comment)

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