It's disappointing to write this post, yet I've been itching to write it for the past week or so. And I keep starting it, not liking what I've written, and abandoning what I've got, then re-starting it.
What am I talking about? Last week, I discovered some plagiarism at the San Francisco Chronicle. Last Wednesday, pointed there by this BoingBoing post, I read this article;"Lethal Beauty: The Allure" by Edward Guthmann, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday, October 30 edition of the Chronicle, is the first part of a seven-part series about Golden Gate Bridge suicides and the debate over the addition of a suicide barrier to the bridge.
It's a good, strongly-written article, but something seemed very familiar. One ancillary advantage of having a blog is that it tends to serve as a sort of backup memory dump, so I searched this site and found that two years ago, I blogged about a powerful New Yorker article that appeared on the same subject.
"Jumpers", by Tad Friend, was published in the October 13, 2003 issue of the New Yorker. I re-read it because it was a really good article, and because I wanted to see how the newspaper story stacked up against the magazine article. And I was unprepared for what I found. Some of the quotes were the same, for instance. And the Chronicle article wasn't attributing them to the New Yorker. The quote ("I'd heard the water just sweeps you under") from Ken Baldwin, who attempted suicide in 1985, echoed a longer version of the same quote in the New Yorker. And Ken Holmes, the Marin County coroner, talking about his efforts to stop lurid media reporting of bridge jumpers (and thus prevent copycat suicides), said "we weaned them. . .the lack of publicity hasn't reduced the number of suicides at all." This quote also showed up in Guthmann's article in the Chronicle.
This was puzzling -- was this what it seemed to be? Was Guthman lifting quotes from the New Yorker article without attribution? I wasn't quite sure, especially with the Baldwin quote. Did it date from his suicide attempt in 1985, and did Friend find it in a contemporary story? Or did Friend get the quote by reporting his story in 2003? It makes sense to talk to the same people, after all: this is a relatively narrow subject, and the stories are pretty similar to each other in terms of subject matter and approach.
The Marissa Imrie story also showed up in both places. In the New Yorker:
On December 17, 2001, fourteen-year-old Marissa Imrie, a petite and attractive straight-A student who had planned to become a psychiatrist, left her second-period class at Santa Rosa High School, took a hundred-and-fifty-dollar taxi ride to the Golden Gate, and jumped to her death. Though Marissa was always very hard on herself and had lately complained of severe headaches and insomnia, her mother, Renée Milligan, had no inkling of her plans. "She called us 'the glue girls,' we were so close," Milligan told me. "She'd never spoken about the bridge, and we'd never even visited it."
When Milligan examined her daughter's computer afterward, she discovered that Marissa had been visiting a how-to Web site about suicide that featured grisly autopsy photos. The site notes that many suicide methods are ineffective (poison is fatal only fifteen per cent of the time, drug overdose twelve per cent, and wrist cutting a mere five per cent) and therefore recommends bridges, noting that "jumps from higher than . . . 250 feet over water are almost always fatal." Milligan bought the proprietor of the site's book, "Suicide and Attempted Suicide," and read the following sentence: "The Golden Gate Bridge is to suicides what Niagara Falls is to honeymooners." She returned the book and gave the computer away.
In the Chronicle:
Marissa Imrie was a straight-A student at Santa Rosa High School when she jumped off the bridge in December 2001. After her death, Marissa's mother, Renee Milligan, looked on her computer and found that Marissa had researched a Web site on suicide. She also had bought a book, Geo Stone's "Suicide and Attempted Suicide: Methods and Consequences," and learned that a jump from the bridge is far deadlier than suicide methods typically favored by women and girls: Poison is 15 percent effective; drug overdose, 12 percent; wrist cutting, 5 percent.
This seemed uncomfortably close to Friend's article, especially in the section reciting the mortality of various suicide methods. (The only fact that was different in this story in the two articles is that Guthmann has Marissa Imrie buying the book, while in Friend's, Imrie's mother Renée Milligan buys the book after her daughter's death.)
I read the two stories, side-by-side, with increasing disbelief. But what really made my jaw drop was one particular graf. Again, from the New Yorker:
In 1995, as No. 1,000 approached, the frenzy was even greater. A local disk jockey went so far as to promise a case of Snapple to the family of the victim. That June, trying to stop the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age twenty-five, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found.
From the Chronicle:
In the '90s, a suicide club was formed to predict the exact date that the 1,000th suicide would jump to his or her death. As the death toll approached, a local disc jockey promised a case of Snapple to the victim's family. In June 1995, trying to stem the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age 20, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found.
Notice that the Chronicle version changes "That June" to "June 1995", "stop" changed to "stem", and changes Eric Atkinson's age from "twenty-five" to "20"; other than those minor changes, the final two sentences of each paragraph are identical, down to the structure of the sentences and even the placement of the semicolon in the last sentence.
Now, this seemed pretty clear. So I wrote to the Chronicle's ombudsman, Dick Rogers, and copied Edward Guthmann, the article's writer, and detailed what I'd found. (I also checked with some print journo friends -- I was 98% sure that attribution was required, but since I'm a TV journamalist, I wanted to check to see if "x, talking to the New Yorker in 2003, said y" was too cluttered for newspaper style. Turns out it isn't, as I'd surmised.)
Now, this whole thing may seem like nitpicky quibbling for those who haven't gone to J-school (well, I haven't, but my mother did...and close dissection of the newspaper was the dinnertime ritual in my house while I was growing up), but this is an issue of trust. As one of my print reporter friends put it, not attributing the quotes gives the reader the sense that the reporter is conversing with the subject himself...and when that trust is broken, it hurts the journalism business. I agree. As journalists, we don't make widgets that can stand or fall on their intrinsic merits. (You can check Consumer Reports to see what the good and bad products are, to see if the car you're about to buy is likely to be a peach or a lemon.) We make little squiggles on paper that winds up at the bottom of the birdcage the next day, or evanescent streams of electrons that escape the atmosphere at the speed of light. So the maintenance of that trust is even more important than with physical products. There's no way to return your newspaper or the nightly broadcast, even if you kept the receipt. Journalists deal with intangibles like reputation and trust all the time, because in a reader's (or a viewer's) mind, you're only as good as your last story. And if there's anything in there to erode that confidence -- whether something as small as a dumb typo in an onscreen graphic or something as big as Jayson Blair-style widespread fakery -- then the entire organization (not to mention journalism as a whole) is diminished as a result.
The next day, last Thursday, I sent a copy of the e-mail that I'd sent the Chronicle to Tad Friend, author of the original article. He asked me to keep him posted on any future developments.
I thought it was a bit curious that I didn't hear back from the Chronicle relatively quickly; no "we're going to look into it" sort of response came my way. However, late last Friday night, I checked the story again, and was surprised to see that they'd re-edited the story to provide attribution to the quotes and re-written the offending paragraph...with no acknowledgment whatsoever that the print version of the story differed from what was online. Neither the article's webpage nor the Chronicle's corrections page mentioned it at all.
It may have just been my timing, however, because on Saturday -- the least-read newspaper day of the week -- the paper published an editor's note atop the story and on its corrections page. It reads:
Editor's Note: The first installment of a series of stories on Golden Gate Bridge suicides, which appeared Sunday, contained material that had appeared in the Oct. 13, 2003, edition of the New Yorker magazine. (11/5) The story should have attributed quotations from Ken Baldwin of Angels Camp and Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes to the magazine. It also used language nearly identical to that of the magazine to describe the California Highway Patrol's decision to halt the official count of suicides at 997 and to describe the unofficial 1,000th death.
This note quickly got crossposted to Romenesko, I noticed.
Nothing happened further for several days -- still no response from the ombudsman or anyone else at the Chronicle -- until yesterday, when I heard from a SF Weekly reporter who was doing a story on the whole thing. I spoke with him briefly and described what had happened thus far.
And a couple hours after I got off the phone with him yesterday, I received an e-mail from the Chronicle's reader representative. It says, in part:
I'm writing to thank you for your Nov. 2 letter to The Chronicle and to let you know that I'm looking into the specifics of all similarities between the paper's story on Golden Gate Bridge suicides and that of the New Yorker. Last Saturday the paper published an editor's note acknowledging the improper use of several passages, including the two quotes you cited. I am uncertain at this point whether other similarities were improper or the result of reporting on parallel tracks. I intend to find out. The similarities raise disturbing questions in my mind, too.
These are serious matters and will not be taken lightly. The paper has a strong policy against plagiarism and a strong interest in maintaining credibility.
It's a thoughtful letter and shows that they're addressing it, and that they're making sure of the extent of the problem. It took them a little while to send it, but I'm glad they did. I hope they keep me -- to say nothing of the paper's readers -- informed on what happens.
I'd thought it would be fun to throw this grenade, but it's actually frustrating and perplexing and a little bit sad. I was shocked that a reporter for a major paper would plagiarize an article that appeared in a major, widely-read magazine just two years ago, especially as the first part of a seven-part series and on the front page of the Sunday paper. It feels strangely exhilarating to be the person who noticed this and let the Chronicle and the New Yorker know about the plagiarism, but I don't want to be throwing rocks at the paper just for the sake of doing so. It's a big transgression, to be sure, but I certainly don't think it should ruin Edward Guthmann's career. The article is a good one, and as I said in my e-mail to the ombudsman, it's a comprehensive examination of the allure of the Golden Gate Bridge for potential suicides, not to mention a powerful implicit argument for the construction of a suicide barrier on the bridge. I just wish Guthmann had done more of his own reporting and shown his work, because I really believe journalism works best in a climate of transparency.
UPDATE: The SF Weekly story referenced above is here.