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.
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.
“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.