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Marred Record
October 14, 2011 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Yesterday, Politico reporter Kendra Marr was forced to resign her position after New York Times writer Susan Stellin alerted Marr's editors to similarities between her transportation policy story published Sept. 26 and Marr’s story published Oct. 10. An investigation by Politico into Marr's work found 7 instances of likely plagiarism. Marr, who was formerly a reporter for the OC Register, San Jose Mercury News and the Washington Post, had logged 409 stories (scroll down for list) with Politico during her time there. The outlet has issued a statement. Poynter has a thorough rundown, indicating that more of her articles may come under scrutiny.

Fishbike:
Those who know her well say there is no way Marr did this maliciously or even, necessarily, knowingly. Nor is anyone internally comparing this to a Jayson Blair (formerly with the NYT) type scenario. They reason pressure and sloppiness contributed to her fall.

Regret the Error points out that the Editor's Note is "...notable for the fact that is never uses the word plagiarism, even though it’s explicitly about a case of serial plagiarism."

Washington Post media editor/blogger Erik Wemple feels Politico isn't handling the situation well.

The stories:
* TSA not flying high fiscally
* Scuttled highway may sidetrack Perry
* Christie to return rail tunnel cash
* Shovel ready jobs could take time
* Boeing factory turns sour for Obama
* Defining the transportation debate
* Obama to tout auto turnaround

Over at Poynter, Julie Moos notes that when Marr was a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she once claimed to be a U.S. census worker in order to locate a witness in a murder case. Also, that "based on the editor’s notes appended to stories, material was used from the following sources without proper credit: Scripps Howard (twice), The New York Times (four separate times), Greenwire, NJ.com and The Associated Press (twice), The Hill and The Journal of Commerce. Six of the stories were published between Sept. 19 and Oct. 10. One of the stories was published July 28."

While at Politico, Ms. Marr covered the Tim Pawlenty presidential campaign until the candidate withdrew from the race in August. Marr was included in an article in the New York Times about bloggers covering the campaign back in January. She was switched to the Transportation beat a few weeks ago.

Her twitter.
posted by zarq (43 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
While I was compiling this post, Marr's profile at Politico was taken down. The photo of her that used to be on that page can be seen at Gawker.

A Politico article by Marr was included in a Metafilter post in August. However, none of the plagiarized articles listed above were ever used in a MeFi post.
posted by zarq at 12:08 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


...forced to resign...

Well which was it?
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:13 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


...forced to resign...

Well which was it?


It depends on which direction the force was arriving.
posted by Mblue at 12:15 PM on October 14, 2011


Those who know her well say there is no way Marr did this maliciously or even, necessarily, knowingly. Nor is anyone internally comparing this to a Jayson Blair (formerly with the NYT) type scenario. They reason pressure and sloppiness contributed to her fall.

Wasn't "pressure and sloppiness" what contributed to Jayson Blair's plagarism?
posted by magstheaxe at 12:16 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Jayson Blair's decision to plagarize", I should say.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:20 PM on October 14, 2011


What happens to your career after you get caught doing this? I know her journalism career is over, but how do you go on to something else?
posted by josher71 at 12:20 PM on October 14, 2011


2bucksplus: "...forced to resign..."

The Editor's Note said she offered her resignation and they accepted. At least two or three of the linked articles characterized it as a "forced resignation," so for brevity's sake I used that wording.
posted by zarq at 12:21 PM on October 14, 2011


josher71: "What happens to your career after you get caught doing this? I know her journalism career is over, but how do you go on to something else?"

No idea. Jayson Blair became a life coach.
posted by zarq at 12:23 PM on October 14, 2011


Wasn't Jayson Blair also making up quotes and pretending to have gone places he never went? This (at least so far) seems to only involve stealing story organization and wording, which seems pretty different to me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:27 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


magstheaxe: " Wasn't "pressure and sloppiness" what contributed to Jayson Blair's plagarism?"

Maybe, but Blair's efforts were a lot more extensive.
posted by zarq at 12:30 PM on October 14, 2011


Yeah, big difference between plagiarism and fabulism...
posted by BobbyVan at 12:30 PM on October 14, 2011


So Politico fired Marr/accepted her resignation for plagiarism, but they won't call it that? That seems problematic: not exactly dishonest but not fully honest either.
posted by immlass at 12:36 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


How can it be plagiarism when pretty much every news story in every paper is simply a cut and paste from a press release?
posted by spicynuts at 12:45 PM on October 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


What happens to your career after you get caught doing this?

Not plagiarism but Stephen Glass apparently does stand up and law.
posted by drezdn at 12:46 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have never understood the concept of plagiarism at all. Cite your sources, build upon them and viola, you have contributed something new/different or with a fresh perspective.

Nothing, and I mean nothing drives me more crazy than plagiarism at an academic level.
posted by handbanana at 12:47 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why the fuck do people do this? I mean, seriously, citing sources isn't that fucking difficult.
posted by Avenger at 12:50 PM on October 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


What happens to your career after you get caught doing this?

You might get invited to be on TV a lot.

Like this guy.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:54 PM on October 14, 2011



Why the fuck do people do this? I mean, seriously, citing sources isn't that fucking difficult.

Perhaps the editors do not want stories with cites..they want 'original' material. You know, so they can win a Pulitzer.
posted by spicynuts at 12:56 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


How can it be plagiarism when pretty much every news story in every paper is simply a cut and paste from a press release?

A-freaking-men! How many "interviews" do we have to read/view/hear that come straight from the goddamn talking points?!?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:06 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


How can it be plagiarism when pretty much every news story in every paper is simply a cut and paste from a press release?

Where did you get that idea? I am a small-time hack at a small-time newspaper, and an admittedly lousy reporter. Even I don't cut and paste from press releases, (unless its a spaghetti dinner announcement, which usually need rewritten anyway), except for excerpts placed in quotes and properly attributed.
posted by tommyD at 1:07 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


You know, so they can win a Pulitzer the afternoon.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:07 PM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


spicynuts: "How can it be plagiarism when pretty much every news story in every paper is simply a cut and paste from a press release?"

Speaking as someone who writes press releases, this really isn't as common as you might think. Especially not at the larger magazines or newspaper outlets (circulation > 50K). In fact it's pretty rare outside of media outlets that are obviously biased, like FoxNews.
posted by zarq at 1:08 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of you people need to get your sarcasm meters recalibrated. Just cuz you work in the industry shouldn't mean you should lose your sense of humor about it.
posted by spicynuts at 1:11 PM on October 14, 2011


Cut & paste is an overstatement but I have stopped being surprised by how often stuff I see in my PR Newswire alerts show up as marginally improved stories a few days later. Ditto things from the police blotter emails.

My decision to stop getting the M-S Washington Post was made on a Thursday when I was reading the local section and realized I'd seen everything in the local crimes coverage in my emails two days prior, with, in fact, greater detail.
posted by phearlez at 1:14 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


spicynuts: "Some of you people need to get your sarcasm meters recalibrated. Just cuz you work in the industry shouldn't mean you should lose your sense of humor about it."

Unfortunately it's an old accusation, which makes a lot of journalists cringe defensively because it paints them as lazy and unethical.
posted by zarq at 1:16 PM on October 14, 2011


And also because of how much of our office time is spent dealing with people who want us to do just that.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:25 PM on October 14, 2011


Why the fuck do people do this? I mean, seriously, citing sources isn't that fucking difficult.
When was the last time you saw a newspaper article with actual citations? A newspaper is a source, so you're supposed to gather primary source stuff, like quotations from talking to people. Rarely will you see something like "Mr. Parr, who -- according to his wikipedia article -- enjoys canning and conga dancing flew in from Belfast tuesday..."

I always thought of plagiarism as simply lifting text wholesale and putting it in your work. It sounds like this woman instead simply rewrote articles that other people had done? In an academic setting, would that be considered plagiarism? Would it be if you didn't cite your sources?
posted by delmoi at 1:34 PM on October 14, 2011


The rebuttal to accusations of regurgitating Press Releases came from a journalist and "someone who writes Press Releases".

Colour me shocked
posted by fullerine at 1:42 PM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Those who know her well say there is no way Marr did this maliciously or even, necessarily, knowingly.

The idea that she graduated from Northwestern and got as far as she did without knowledge that what she was doing was inappropriate is somewhere between incredible and disturbing.
posted by ambient2 at 1:56 PM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


fullerine: "The rebuttal to accusations of regurgitating Press Releases came from a journalist and "someone who writes Press Releases"."

Well, working with journalists every day I have direct knowledge of how the stuff I write changes before it is used in a story/article/blog post/tv or radio segment, so yeah.

Have worked as a publicist for more than a decade and a half and am open (and often critical) here on MeFi about various aspects of public relations and journalism that I'm familiar with. (Feel free to search my history for the words "publicist," "pr," and "journalism" to see what I mean.) However, most of my professional work is actually with medical / health / science editors, so that colors my perspective a bit.
posted by zarq at 2:16 PM on October 14, 2011


Why the fuck do people do this? I mean, seriously, citing sources isn't that fucking difficult.

Why the fuck do people do this in this day and age when it is so trivially easy to get caught?

Before the Interwebs it was probably easy to get away with this, but now? You do a search and you see two "very" similar articles come up in Google? You can probably even write scraper software to check for stuff like this.

I can only assume that she did it because she found it increasingly difficult to write original stuff by her deadlines, and was desperate not to get fired. which leads me to a question.

Say you have a profile of a widget-maker due and for whatever reason you are a freshman in college who went to too many keg parties and now the deadline is looming and even an all-nighter won't save your ass. Could you go to your editor and admit you have nothing, absolutely nothing? How many times can you do that without being canned for that?
posted by xetere at 2:42 PM on October 14, 2011


Surprised no one has mentioned the pressure of working at Politico. It's notoriously a content mill, a very low-quality publication that exists on a) being five to ten minutes ahead on meaningless "scoops" (aka "winning the afternoon") and b) massive amounts of defense contractor money.

I don't want to condone plagiarism (and you'd think that if you're going to plagiarize, you'd do it from an outlet less prominent than the NYT) but under the obscene pressure to churn out stories in a brand-new, very complex beat, I can imagine why she might've done it.
posted by downing street memo at 3:34 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Extra surprised that no one's mentioned David Simon or The Wire. So allow me to do so:

As David Simon's The Wire reminds us, serial plagiarists are a dangerous distraction from actual serious problems with journalism - for example, the fact that Politico is a gigantic steaming wet pile of shit, which draws eyeballs away from, say, actual substantive coverage of American government.

YOU ARE WELCOME, FUCKERS
posted by waxbanks at 5:43 PM on October 14, 2011


If you're referring to the Scott Templeton character, he didn't plagiarize.

So Politico fired Marr/accepted her resignation for plagiarism, but they won't call it that?

There is no plagiarism, there are only "troubling similarities." I imagine it's a legalism, probably to avoid admitting to copyright infringement.
posted by rhizome at 6:40 PM on October 14, 2011


Craig Silverman, of the blog Regret the Error and the Columbia Journalism Review has said that newsinstitutions should invest in the same kind of companies that check for plagiarism in school papers and then do "random screenings" to keep their authors from plagiarizing. It's a nice idea but it seems unfeasible given that most newsrooms have not a pot to piss in, much less thousands of dollars to spend on plagiarism detection software.

I've never understood the antipathy toward Politico, but people seem really passionate about it - waxbanks, can you point to some egregious examples of outstanding Politico suckitude? There are a couple of writers there whose work I really enjoy, and beyond that, I can generally find useful bite size pieces of information on the site.

Lastly, even though fullerine linked to it upthread, I wanted to post a link to Churnalism, which is a website that allows you to compare an article with a press release and see how much of it is directly lifted from the release. It's handy and elucidating, but I honestly think that it's a small problem outside of certain narrow news demographics.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 6:50 PM on October 14, 2011


I caught a reporter ganking huge chunks - word for word - from Wikipedia for a story.
MAJOR AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER: Bomber star Merrett suffers stroke

WIKIPEDIA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Merrett

I've often wondered if that was a sackable offence. Where do you draw the line?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:05 PM on October 14, 2011


COLD BUSTED
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:42 PM on October 14, 2011


zarq, the sidebar to your Gawker link was a laugh fest. For example,

http://gawker.com/5849731/snoop-dogg-is-obsessed-with-the-worlds-largest-turnip

[I don't read Gawker much]
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:45 PM on October 14, 2011


delmoi: I always thought of plagiarism as simply lifting text wholesale and putting it in your work. It sounds like this woman instead simply rewrote articles that other people had done? In an academic setting, would that be considered plagiarism? Would it be if you didn't cite your sources?

One of the problems was that Kendra Marr apparently used idiomatic expressions straight from other writers' works, which is what tipped them off.

It stands to reason that if you are all speaking to the same sources your stories are going to be similar; no one expects all the information to be different. It's how the writer puts the information down on the page (or website, whatever) that makes it an original work.

Whenever I see a story like this, I feel like the only reason some of the best writers I know don't get more work is that they have this little thing known as "ethics".

Kendra Marr also pretended to be a census worker to get to a murder witness--that should have tipped her employer off that maybe she wasn't the most ethical reporter to begin with.
posted by misha at 10:27 PM on October 14, 2011


"Kendra Marr also pretended to be a census worker to get to a murder witness"

She was told at the time by her professor that it was legal, and she wasn't the only one he convinced to do something unethical. He was openly teaching them that "The behavior is acceptable if there is no other way to get the story and there is a higher social purpose, a higher social good."

Anyway, like Wemple, I want to see the comparison of these articles.
posted by HopperFan at 5:47 AM on October 15, 2011


Zarq: Speaking as someone who writes press releases, this really isn't as common as you might think. Especially not at the larger magazines or newspaper outlets (circulation > 50K). In fact it's pretty rare outside of media outlets that are obviously biased, like FoxNews.

Respectfully, no. Not at all. Just the opposite.

Cut and paste journalism -- literally cutting and pasting, and more figuratively, rewriting press releases without any reporting -- are extremely common in many branches of journalism. It's particularly bad in the zarq's (and my) field: medical/science/health journalism. (I'm a journalist, not a publicist, so my perspective is obviously different from zarq's.)

To prove the point, here is a quick analysis of the top health story on Google News: how UK cell phones are contaminated with feces.

Here's the original source: a press release from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

One much-imitated paragraph: "Although 95% of people said they washed their hands with soap where possible, 92% of phones and 82% of hands had bacteria on them. Worryingly, 16% of hands and 16% of phones were found to harbour E. coli – bacteria of a faecal origin."

The release also conveniently has some canned quotes, such as:
"This study provides more evidence that some people still don't wash their hands properly, especially after going to the toilet." --Val Curtis

"While some cities did much better than others, the fact that E. coli was present on phones and hands in every location shows this is a nationwide problem. People may claim they wash their hands regularly but the science shows otherwise." --Ron Cutler

Now, look at some of the coverage:

CNN:
When surveyed, 95% of respondents told the researchers that they washed their hands with soap where possible, but the researchers said 92% of phones and 82% of hands had bacteria on them. And 16% of hands and 16% of phones harbored the E. coli bacteria.

The article then quotes Curtis and Cutler (and nobody else)

USA Today:
Ninety-five percent of the participants told the researchers that they washed their hands with soap and water where possible. However, lab tests revealed that 92 percent of phones and 82 percent of hands had bacteria on them. The researchers also found that 16 percent of hands and 16 percent of cellphones harbored E. coli bacteria, which is found in feces and can cause serious illness.

Quotes from Curtis and Cutler

Guardian (wire):
Although 95% of people said they washed their hands with soap where possible, 92% of phones and 82% of hands had bacteria on them. Worryingly, 16% of hands and 16% of phones were found to harbour E.coli - bacteria of a faecal origin.

Quote from Curtis

Guardian:
While 95% of the 390 people surveyed said they washed their hands with soap where possible, 92% of mobile phones and 82% of hands were contaminated with bacteria.
The study, which took samples from 390 phones in 12 cities, raises serious public health concerns as it found that 16% of hands and the same proportion of phones were contaminated with E coli.

Quotes from Curtis and Cutler

JAMA:
In response, 95% of the participants said they washed their hands with soap when possible; yet, 92% of phones and 82% of hands had bacteria on them, of which 16% of cell phones and 16% of hands harbored E coli.

Quote from Curtis

There are oodles and oodles of other examples you can find on Google news.

---

I don't think it's terribly interesting to argue about whether or not this is *really* plagiarism. (IMO, the answer is yes, even despite the fact that the paragraph in question deals with numbers and that there are minor wording changes.) Nor do I think it's important about whether blogs have a different standard than more traditional media (IMO, they shouldn't -- besides, some of these examples aren't blogs.)

More to the point is how many of these articles required the "reporter" to pick up a phone... to do any reporting or research whatsoever beyond reading a press release.

See for yourself. Browse the coverage of this story and see how often you find a reporter *adding* something to the state of knowledge rather than cut-and-pasting from (or, charitably, rewriting) a press release.

Do that, and you'll get a sense of the current state of some branches of "journalism."
posted by cgs06 at 6:36 AM on October 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


One of the problems was that Kendra Marr apparently used idiomatic expressions straight from other writers' works, which is what tipped them off. . . . It's how the writer puts the information down on the page (or website, whatever) that makes it an original work.

I used to be a reporter on the Hill and sometimes my competitor and I would write eerily similar stories with similar syntax and turns of phrase even though there was no way there was any plagiarism going on because they were published at the same time. I think it's more a function of being in an insular environment where you hear the same things repeated day after day. In this story on the auto bailout from July 2010, Marr supposedly borrowed the phrase "Chrysler was 'forced into the arms' of Italian automaker Fiat" from this Times story from June (at least I assume that's why the phrase is in quotes in Marr's article). But do a search for the phrase and you find this WSJ story from May 2009 with the headlilne: "Chrysler Pushed Into Fiat's Arms." Is it plagiarism, or just a phrase that's used a lot by people who talk about the auto bailout?

Kendra Marr also pretended to be a census worker to get to a murder witness

As HopperFan points out, there's more to the story than this. This Times article has more information.

Whenever I see a story like this, I feel like the only reason some of the best writers I know don't get more work is that they have this little thing known as "ethics".

I'm not sure what you mean by this. What exactly do you imagine most reporters are doing such that those who are ethical aren't getting work? Almost all of the reporters I've known and worked with are very mindful of ethics. Reporters are a vain and prideful bunch. They don't want to plagiarize from other people because that would be an admission that they aren't as good of a reporter as the person they cribbed from.

All of this is not to say that Marr didn't plagiarize. It's hard to tell without a side-by-side comparison of the original stories, as others have noted.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 7:03 AM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I imagine it's a legalism, probably to avoid admitting to copyright infringement.

Aha, that makes sense and is an angle I hadn't considered. Thanks.
posted by immlass at 7:31 AM on October 15, 2011


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