No Second Chances

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
There are ethics in journalism. They vary from country to country, but these two are pretty darn clear:
  • " Never plagiarize."
  • "...Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations."
Those are direct quotes from the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics. There is nothing fuzzy about them. Mistakes happen, but violating either of those two are rarely accidental (I did plagiarize accidentally once. I was nine years old. I didn't know any better, and it was an essay based on a poem that I had read so many times I knew it by heart. I apologized to my teacher and wrote a new essay. Everyone should learn this lesson in fourth grade)*.

If you are a professional journalist--- and I include anyone interning for a newspaper as well in this--violating either of these things should be entirely inexcusable: one strike and you're out. I think that if I were an editor of a college paper, I'd do it on a case by case basis, but I'd tend towards the one-strike rule there too.

Plagiarism and intentional deception through image distortion should be career ending. Period. To that end, I have absolutely no sympathy for Hailey Mac Arthur. A few people on Gawker argued that Gawker should have cut her some slack. Gawker is mean, but in this case right. Journalism is suffering enough as is, without people who take a first person account of the death of a woman's daughter, change the prepositions and call it a day. There is no excuse for that.

(So you can see for yourself, here are the passages as highlighted by the Colorado Springs Gazette.)

Gazette, July 2: Grief over pregnant mother's death overwhelms family

The collision of life and death plays out in this nondescript home at the end of the cul-de-sac in a quiet northeast Colorado Springs neighborhood. King stares blankly. ... Mike King stands up, carrying the weight of a man tossed into a cascade of disbelief, despair and depression.

. . . The crushing weight of death descended upon her family, her friends, the entire second floor of Memorial Hospital North.

NY Times, Feb. 18, 2007: Generations: A daughter's death, and a quest for answers

The collision of life and death tossed me and those close to me into a cascade of disbelief, fear, anger, confusion and grief.

. . . At that moment, as the crushing weight of death descended upon all of us, I promised my sweet daughter that I would seek justice for this tragedy. I would find the answers, hold people accountable.

To that end, I have no more sympathy for Edgar Martins who digitally altered photos of houses submitted to the New York Times Magazine. There are a ton of talented freelance photographers looking for their big break. If you get yours and mess it up, that should be the end.

* Weirdly, years later, I was reading Cricket Magazine, and saw that a kid had submitted a poem as part of her letter to the magazine. It was word for word, line for line, a copy of Jean Little's "An Afternoon In March" from the book Hey World Here I Am. It was the same poem I had plagiarized for that essay a decade earlier. But this kid got it in print. I hope someone caught her.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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