Standards violated, review finds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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While it is true that newspapers could not be published without using information reported by others, it is vital for the credibility of The Sun and other newspapers that when unique facts or language are borrowed,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

In the study, black males in their 20s committed four violent crimes for every one committed by white male youths. But when the study was controlled for employment, there was no significant difference in the violent crime rate between white males and black males.

In his Dec. 3, 2004, column, Olesker wrote:

In one national study, black males in their 20s committed four violent crimes for every one committed by white male youths. But when the study was controlled for employment, there was no significant racial difference.

Page's column is the only published source of the information, and Olesker used Page's interpretation of the study almost word for word. Olesker's column makes no reference to the original source of the study or of where he read it. Though this syndicated column was published in The Sun, it should have been attributed.

* * *

Olesker borrowed liberally - in some instances copying passages almost word for word - from a Dec. 8, 2002, New York Times obituary of Philip Berrigan, Baltimore's famous rebel priest.

The Times obituary said:

His Josephite superiors had hustled him out of Newburgh, N.Y., for aggressive civil rights and antiwar activity there. ...

The "Catonsville Nine" struck on May 17, 1968, taking hundreds of files from the draft board office. They piled the documents in the parking lot and set them burning with a mixture of gasoline and soap chips - homemade napalm.

In his Dec. 10, 2002, column, Olesker wrote:

From the time his Josephite superiors hustled him out of Newburgh, N.Y., for getting too aggressive in civil rights demonstrations ...

Later in the column, Olesker wrote:

(H)e and eight others - the Catonsville Nine - walked into a Frederick Road draft board, grabbed hundreds of files and took them to a parking lot, where they set them afire with a mix of gasoline and soap chips - homemade napalm.

Even though the material can be considered background, the narrative style is particular to The New York Times, so it should have been attributed. The correct choice would have been to use specific material about Berrigan from The Sun's own archives or to credit The New York Times.

***

The review also found this example of third-hand borrowing.

A letter to the editor published on Jan. 19, 2001, in The New York Times, said:

Secretary of Defense-designate Donald H. Rumsfeld wants to increase military spending (front page, Jan. 12). But according to the Center for Defense Information, the United States already spends more on the military than the next 12 biggest spenders combined, and most of those countries are our allies.

The United States outspends Russia, which has the second highest expenditures, by more than 5 to 1, and accounts for a greater share of world military spending than it did at the peak of the Reagan buildup. Spending more on weapons takes away resources from our real strength: a healthy and educated citizenry.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON,

Cambridge, Mass., Jan. 12, 2001.

The writer is a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.

In his Jan. 23, 2001, column, Olesker wrote:

According to the Center for Defense Information, America already spends more on its military than the next 12 biggest spenders combined. And most of those are our allies.

We now outspend second-place Russia by a ratio of more than 5-to-1. We account for a greater percentage of the planet's military spending now that we did at the height of the Reagan defense buildup ...

The review found no published record attributing this information to the Center for Defense Information other than Brynjolfsson's letter to the Times. To cite these statistics in a story or column, Olesker should have first read the study himself to confirm the numbers, and possibly done additional reporting to strengthen the information. There is no evidence that this happened. He also failed to credit the sole source of his information - a letter to the editor of The New York Times.

* **

Olesker also copied a press release quote without attribution.

An Oct. 30, 2000 press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy promoting three books quoted author Chuck Collins as saying: "Twenty years ago, the average CEO of a major U.S. corporation earned 42 times as much as the average employee; today that gap has widened to 475 times."

In a column published on Nov. 9, 2000, Olesker said, without attributing it to Collins:

Twenty years ago, the average CEO of a major U.S. corporation earned 42 times as much as the average employee; today the same CEO makes 475 times as much as the average grunt.

* * *

In these examples cited in this column and in other instances found in the review, Olesker used material that was not in the public domain without crediting the source.

The Sun routinely scrutinizes the values and conduct of public officials, organizations, professionals and others in the communities it serves, and I feel strongly that the newspaper itself should receive an equal level of critical attention.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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