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Tag: Jayson Blair

Plagiarism, Perception and Reality

In a story that received a good bit of attention in the blogosphere, ESPNEWS anchor Will Selva was suspended indefinitely on Dec. 30 for plagiarism. He had introduced a story on the air about the Los Angeles Lakers, using the words of Orange County Register columnist Kevin Ding as his own, without attributing the source.

Ding called Selva out, an investigation followed, and the Worldwide Leader took swift and decisive action.

Selva apologized in a statement:

“I made a horrible mistake and I’m deeply sorry. I did not live up to my high standards or ESPN’s. I sincerely apologize for my sloppiness, especially to Kevin Ding, viewers and colleagues. In my 15 years in broadcast journalism, nothing like this has ever happened and I will make every effort to ensure it won’t happen again.”

Sounds sincere and contrite. But do you believe Selva? Suspended after it was proved he was a fraud, how can we believe “nothing like this has ever happened” before? Why should we? Because Selva’s statement is written, are we simply jumping to conclusions? Are we interpreting his tone correctly? If he was an anchor with more name recognition, would we be more inclined to believe him? Whatever the case, Selva is going to have a hard time recovering from this incident. An incident that could have been avoided if he simply said, “Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register said it best in his Sunday column…”.

Look no further than Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, and Judith Miller to see how the combination of plagiarism and fabricating stories has affected writers’ careers. Barnicle continued to work, and four years ago signed on as a columnist at the Boston Herald. Blair got a book deal soon after his flap at the New York Times. Miller, whose reporting on weapons of mass destruction was found to be inaccurate and worse, false, and later served jail time for her refusing to testify before a grand jury in the Valerie Plame case, has recently landed at the Conservative magazine and website Newsmax as a columnist.

Those scribes got second chances. Does Selva’s situation merit one?

The journalist in me says no. There isn’t any circumstance that should result in his reinstatement. Selva violated the most basic principle of the craft and he should be fired, not suspended. The empathic side of me, however, says yes, but that second chance isn’t deserved. It has to be earned, like a series of trials it takes to regain trust in a friend, lover or spouse who breached trust in some way.

Plagiarism is dangerous territory. I know from personal experience. I wrote a column in this space during the 2009 season where I analyzed how different beat writers were covering the same game. My goal was to show how different writers from different papers see the game through different prisms to ultimately craft similar stories. Now, I know from being in press boxes that while the writers sit in close quarters, no one is looking over anyone’s shoulder with that look that says, “Hey, what did you put down for Number 3?” Every writer is in his or her own zone, headphones in to check accuracy of quotes on the recorder, scrambling like hell to make deadline. The chorus of clickety-clacking on laptop keyboards tells you as much. Invariably, by pure coincidence, angles will be similar, certain quotes or sections of quotes will be similar, and in some cases, even certain phrases and word choices describing the action will be either similar or exact. Again, this is pure coincidence. And it’s rare that it happens.

It just so happened that in my analysis, I noticed an exact phrase appearing in different game stories from two writers representing two different papers. In jest, I wrote that one of the writers “copied off (the other writer’s) paper.” It was a regrettable choice of words on my part, and I wish like hell I could take it back. But if there’s one thing I learned in my Intro to Communication Theory class during my freshman year of college, it’s that communication of any kind is irreversible. I went for the laugh with the “copied off his paper” line; maybe I got it, maybe I didn’t. What I got was an e-mail in my personal inbox the next morning from one of the writers. I did not anticipate the content of the note, and I was stunned.

Point blank, the writer asked me if I was accusing him of plagiarism, and if I was, I’d better be ready to prove it.


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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