Standards violated, review finds

The Public Editor

February 05, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

Credibility is the essential ingredient in ensuring that The Sun achieves its goal to be the most trusted source of news and information for its readers. As public editor, I am charged with analyzing and explaining how journalistic practices can affect that credibility.

This column addresses the ethical problems that arise when journalists expropriate, without proper attribution or acknowledgment, unique reporting or writing produced by others.

It has been argued that journalists routinely borrow freely from others at their newspapers or other news organizations.

It is not the borrowing that is wrong.

While it is true that newspapers could not be published without using information reported by others, it is vital for the credibility of The Sun and other newspapers that when unique facts or language are borrowed, we credit the source.

When The Sun reported Jan. 4 that columnist Michael Olesker had resigned because he had failed to properly credit sources for such material in several of his columns, the newspaper had just begun an inquiry into his recent work.

The discussions with Sun editors that led to the resignation centered on a number of examples cited in an article in the City Paper and confirmed by Sun editors, as well as two other instances of inappropriate journalistic practices previously reported by the paper.

At that time it was agreed that I would continue an effort to review hundreds of columns written by Olesker since the year 2000. City Editor Howard Libit, who had been Olesker's supervisor, also examined the material.

The computer-assisted review turned up additional instances where Olesker used material from other sources without meeting The Sun's standard for attribution.

The paper's ethics code says: Facts gathered by other news organizations must be attributed. General information available from multiple sources need not be credited. But news material available only from a single source must be credited.

It is important to note that the vast majority of the columns examined did not have such problems. Most, especially those based on on-the-scene reporting, are a testament to the passion and energy of his writing.

The review also found that Olesker routinely properly attributed material that was originally produced by others. It is clear, in my view, that he understood the rules of proper attribution.

It is also important to make distinctions among problems with various pieces of Olesker's work. Some are more serious infractions than others.

This does not, however, mitigate the fact that a journalist should not use others' material from a single source without attribution and cannot incorporate uniquely structured phrases and sentences that are not one's own. These practices undermine a newspaper's credibility.

Olesker, who examined five representative examples of problems with his work, which are described in this column, said:

"I am very proud of my 30 years as a newspaper columnist. Now that The Sun has dug into the last six years of my work and produced five brief background excerpts from more than 700 columns, I am no less proud. I know that, in my years as a journalist, I have never engaged in any ethical improprieties. The columns from which these excepts were taken will bear this out."

Here is an overview of what I found in the five examples, taken from a larger number of columns identified in my review that in my view lacked appropriate attribution:

***

In one example, identified by the City Paper and confirmed in the review, Olesker expropriated former Sun columnist Gil Sandler's description of a hilarious bit of Baltimore history almost word for word:

In The Sun's Opinion/Commentary page of Aug. 20, 1996, Sandler described then-City Council President Wally Orlinsky's 1976 attempt to create the world's biggest cake as part of the bicentennial celebrations:

The Cake of Cakes was resting on a barge in the harbor and waiting to be presented to America, when a downpour washed 3,000 pounds of red, white and blue icing into the Patapsco. A few nights later a second rainstorm turned what was left of the cake into mush.

In his July 18, 2005, column, Olesker wrote:

As the cake rested on a barge on the harbor, a downpour washed 3,000 pounds of red, white and blue icing into the Patapsco. A few nights later, a second rainstorm turned what was left of the cake into mush.

Using The Sun's archives without attribution can be acceptable - and in some instances is even preferred. But taking distinctive language and original voice without crediting the author to provide "color" details is wrong.

***

In another instance, Olesker borrowed without credit from a nationally syndicated columnist writing about a study assessing how education affects crime rates among young men.

Clarence Page's syndicated column, which appeared in The Sun on Feb. 6, 1998, said:

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