Three lifted passages in an award-winning story forced the press to get off its laurels and reexamine its ethics
Stunned silence filled the meeting room. The 11 governors on the board of the National Newspaper Awards were in a daze. Three of them-Bill Peterson, executive editor of The Star Phoenix in Saskatoon; John Honderich, editor of The Toronto Star; and John Paton, general manager of the Ottawa Sun-had just resigned. They were protesting the majority vote in favour of accepting, without comment, the decision of the judges to uphold the 1990 award for enterprise reporting to Greg Weston and Jack Aubry of The Ottawa Citizen. For a moment, it seemed that not just an award but the fate of the NNA program itself hung in the balance.
The feature article splitting the board was a two-part profile of Marc Lepine, the killer of 14 women at the Ecole Poly technique in Montreal. The Canadian Association of Journalists had already given the 12,000-word piece the CAJ award for best investigative reporting. But the possibility of plagiarism by Weston and Aubry was raised by reporters at The Gazette in Montreal. The complaints forced the boards of both organizations to ask the original judges to reconsider their decisions. In June 1991 theCAJ judges upheld the award and in September the NNA judges followed suit.
The protest resignations at the NNA board meeting later in September showed that not everyone was happy with the judges’ review. But, after three hours of rancorous discussion, the resignations were withdrawn and the governors reached a compromise. By a vote of six to five, they accepted the decision of the judges that the entry was original. However, their final press release went on to name the five governors who disagreed with the majority. Peterson, the chair of the board, says he decided to live with the compromise because everyone would know “there had been a pretty good brawl over this.”
Yet the fallout from the controversy over the Lepine profile still hangs over the Canadian newspaper industry. Few journalists believe that the issues raised during the stormy debate in the summer of 1991 have been settled by the confirmation of the awards to Weston and Aubry. On the contrary, concepts such as plagiarism and ethical journalistic practice, which formerly had seemed straightforward, suddenly became complex and difficult to define. At the same time, the hidden issue of the fundamental relationship of trust between the writer and the reader gradually came into focus.
The Weston/Aubry profile ran in the Citizen, a Southam paper, on February 7 and 8, 1990, two months after the massacre. The Gazette, also a Southam paper, ran a much shorter version on February 11. Its reporters had already written over 100 stories on the massacre, a collection of which earned the Gazette a 1989 runner-up NNA for spot-news coverage. But it was only when theCitizen’s profile won an award, over one year after it first ran, that Gazette reporters Alexander Norris and Elizabeth Thompson raised the question of plagiarism.
A third Gazette reporter, Rod Macdonell, was authorized by the paper to investigate the complaints. His intensive analysis of the Lepine profile focuses on three contentious areas that he and the others claim reveal improprieties, and that the NNA and CA] boards asked their judges to consider in their reviews.
The first was a section where Isabelle Lahaie, a friend of Lepine’s sister, is directly quoted. Her initial exclusive interview appeared in Ie journal de montreal under Michel Benoit’s byline. In the Weston/Aubry profile, she is quoted in English saying exactly what she said in French in the journal without attribution to the original source. Weston and Aubry admit they never interviewed Lahaie but Aubry says he spoke to Benoit to confirm that his story was not altered in editing. Weston says they didn’t feel attribution was required once the accuracy was established. But Benoit told the Ryerson Review of Journalism that he never spoke to Weston or Aubry .
The second area of doubt was a section dealing with Erik Cossette, Lepine’s roommate, which Weston and Aubry later readily admitted was taken from an exclusive interview given by Cossette to Alexander Norris. Again there was no attribution. Aubry says that when he asked for an interview, Cossette refused to answer any questions but “more or less” gave Aubry “carte blanche” to use the Norris interview. Weston says that the interview acquired the status of a press release because Cossette called it “his statement.”
The last item questioned was a quote by Jean Belanger, Lepine’s childhood friend. It ran in the Gazette on December 9, 1989 under the shared byline of Rod Macdonell, Elizabeth Thompson, Andrew McIntosh and William Marsden as follows: “‘He kept his plans very close to himself,’ he added. ‘If he would have a problem, he would never ask for help. If something hurt him inside, he would keep it to himself. ‘” In the W eston/Aubry piece Belanger is quoted as saying: “‘He kept everything very close to himself, even with me,’ Belanger says, shaking his head. ‘If he had a problem, he would never ask for help.'”
In this case, Weston did interview Belanger. Weston gave Belanger a clipping of the Gazette story to confirm its accuracy and in the hope that he would add more details. He later described, for the Review, what happened when Belanger read the interview: “He’s been talking about the subject [Lepine] and going around and around and when he gets back to it he’s sitting there shaking his head and saying ‘yea.'” So Weston added the descriptive gesture to the quote, reinforcing the reader’s mistaken impression that Belanger had said these words originally to Weston rather than to the Gazette.
The Gazette reporters’ objections to the awards, backed by Macdonell’s research, raised unsettling questions for the boards of the CA] and NNA. Nothing like this had ever happened before and neither had rules to cover such a contingency. However, in their instructions to the judges, both boards avoided mentioning “plagiarism,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as the action or practice of taking and using ”as one’s own the thoughts, writings or inventions of another.”
The CA], a national association of active journalists and editors, asked its judges only to uphold or revoke the award in light of a formal complaint lodged by Elizabeth Thompson. The only CAJ judge who provided a written decision was Richard Cleroux, an Ottawa-based free-lance journalist. In his four-page response he accused Weston and Aubry of a lack of journalistic courtesy for not giving credit to the original sources of some of their material. But he ruled out a verdict of plagiarism in favour of “replication,” a vague misdemeanour rather than an outright crime. Furthermore, he excused Weston and Aubry by pointing out that the lifted quotes were a very small part of an otherwise “brilliant” work.
CAJ judge Peter C. Newman’s response was a terse fax saying that he voted to let the award stand. There was no plagiarism, he told the Review, because what Weston and Aubry did is normal journalistic practice for using quotes. Quotes are constantly being taken from his books without attribution, he said, and he has no objection.
At the other extreme, CAJ judge Peter Desbarats, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, told the Review there was no doubt that Weston and Aubry were guilty of plagiarism. Desbarats is supported in his view by Errol Aspevig, professor of philosophy and a non-journalist instructing in media ethics at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. Aspevig says that while spoken words may belong to the interviewees, once writers put them on paper between quotation marks and that is published as original material, those direct quotes are the property of the writers: they are, literally, their writings.
Nevertheless, Desbarats also argued that the plagiarized material was such a small percentage of the whole story that it would have been a disproportionate penalty to take the award away, especially since it was already tarnished. Still, if the accusation of plagiarism had been made during the judging process and ifhe had investigated the charges then, he says, he would not have given them the award in the first place.
The CA] board had already committed itself to upholding the judges’ final decision without knowing what the decision was-a strong statement in support of the integrity of the independent jury system. Just the same, when the judges’ ruling was made known, board chair Charles Bury, among other board members, was content with it. “They [Weston and Aubry] were accused of stealing,” says Bury, editor of The Record in Sherbrooke, “but what it came down to was the judges determined that they had actually borrowed.” It made their story “imperfect,” he says, but not “total garbage.”
Matters were more difficult for the NNA, an industry association whose sole purpose is to give awards and uphold standards of excellence. Confronted with a complaint from the Gazette’s Alexander Norris, the board specifically instructed the judges to decide if the story was an original work as required by the contest rules.
The NNA judges’ five-page unanimous decision upheld the award because they felt the story was original. But they slapped Weston and Aubry on the wrists for “bad form” because they failed to attribute information and direct quotes from the exclusive interviews with Cossette and Lahaie. The use of direct quotes without attribution wasn’t plagiarism-it was merely “the use of material under false pretenses.” In support of this ruling, and contrary to Aspevig’s views, they argued that direct quotes, properly attributed to the speakers, are not considered plagiarized. The speakers are the owners of the words, not the journalists who report them.
Unlike the CAJ, the NNA board voted on whether to accept the result of the review with full knowledge of what that result was. Not surprisingly, the board ended up deeply divided. Governor John Miller, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, says: “We disagreed on what we feel our obligations are and the power we wield as a board.” He winces when he says he felt compelled to accept the judges’ decision because “the rules don’t provide for us [the governors] to deny a prize on the basis of shoddy journalism. The judges’ decision is final.” But even on this point the governors were split. Stuart Robertson, a media lawyer on the board, says there would have been no legal or constitutional problem if they had decided to set aside the judges’ decision and begin the process again.
Even if Weston and Aubry were not guilty of plagiarism but were guilty of discourtesy, bad form and using quotes under false pretenses, both boards were uncertain if any punishment was called for. Norris, on the other hand, was certain that both rulings depicted Canadian journalism as a “bush-league affair with low standards.” Fighting to control his bitterness, Norris told the Review, “Some people say I was making a mountain out of a molehill…that a small amount of plagiarism is all right. Don’t make a fuss about it.”
But even after the judges’ criticisms, Weston, who quit the Citizen in April 1991 to finish a book, is unrepentant. “What was done here [in the Lepine story] goes on in every newspaper every day of the week.” His operating philosophy is to do what serves the reader best. And that, he says, is to verify the accuracy of previously published information before he uses it. When he can’t do that, he attributes. But attribution instead of verification is “cheap journalism,” according to Weston. The average reader doesn’t care who first reported something, only that it is correct.
The Citizen’s national editor, Graham Parley, claims there was no plagiarism in the Lepine profile and no need for attribution. Parley; who was the supervising editor on the piece, argues that all the questionable parts stood on their own. They had either been verified or, in the case of the exclusive Cossette interview by Norris had appeared once before in the Citizen under Norris’s byline vi:; the Southam News service. It was now in the Citizen’s data base and therefore the Citizen’s to use as it wished. Not the least bit humbled by the judges’ criticisms, Parley says, “In future if in doubt we’re going to attribute just because of the enormous fuss that happened this time.”
Veterans like Desbarats agree that journalistic shoplifting has been very common in the industry. One of Desbarats’s first jobs at the Gazette and the old Montreal Star was to rewrite stories from other papers to make them look original, often without adding any new information. There was no thought given to attribution. “That was quite common and I expect a lot of that stuff is still quite common,” he says.
Globe and Mail columnist Stevie Cameron calls this lack of attribution “the magpie approach to journalism.” The fact is that newspapers hate to give each other credit, she says. At the same time, Norris claims there is an invisible old boys’ network in the industry which made both the CAJ and NNA go to incredible lengths to avoid stating the obvious even after they all acknowledged that Weston and Aubry copied material from his story without attribution. He angrily denounces this reluctance as “cronyism.” Journalists love to condemn irregularities in other areas of society, he notes with frustration, “so why the hell can’t we point it out when it happens in our own backyard?”
Perhaps the answer to Norris’s question is that journalists are reluctant to challenge the status quo-an implicit code that permits the lifting of information without attribution. Miller is aware of this practice but he is unwilling to accept it as inevitable. “I think it’s like some cancer that you have to expose,” he says. “You have to root it out.”
But rooting it out is difficult when there are unwritten industry rules that say newspapers shouldn’t knock each other. If papers throw stones, the reasoning goes, they put their own glass houses at risk. But when Weston and Aubry won their CAJ award and Macdonell “smelled a rat,” his subsequent investigation of the three problematic sections in the profile was actually sanctioned by the Gazette’s management group made up of senior editors. He was given the time and expenses he needed to do a thorough job.
And Macdonell was thorough. He documented his evidence, including a face-to-face interview with Weston and Aubry, in a memo to Raymond Brassard, the Gazette’s city editor. Brassard then sent copies of the memo to his senior colleagues and, after a series of discussions, they decided to pursue the matter no further. Brassard told the Review: “We felt as a management group that there just wasn’t quite enough hard evidence that these people had gone out and plagiarized.” However, he agrees that there were some “questionable journalistic practices” involved in the Citizen’s story. “The problem obviously is the old ‘he who casts the first stone’ theory. How many reporters have not gone into the files and pulled out background material and used it?”
In the following months, Gazette management did not publicly back Norris and the others in their complaints. Gazette editor Norman Webster says his organization was vulnerable to accusations of sour grapes because the Ottawa paper had won the awards for a Montreal story, so management had to be careful about what it said. He also cites his conflict of interest as a member of the NNA board of governors, although he resigned in June before the September vote on the matter. But even after his resignation he didn’t support his reporters. Webster says he wanted to appear impartial. “I didn’t think I had to mount a white horse and charge.”
Meanwhile at the Citizen, Graham Parley had no such inhibitions. He wrote impassioned letters to the CAJ and The Globe and Mail defending his reporters’ integrity and, ultimately, his own. Parley appears to be especially enraged by the proprietary claims of a Southam sister newspaper to material that he considers to be public domain. He says disdainfully that Gazette reporters “almost became hysterically obsessive and puritan to the point of nausea with their complaints and shrieks of plagiarism.”
But if information can so easily be classified as “public domain,” it will only reinforce the industry tendency not to attribute, even when it is a small, fairly insignificant section of a story. Desbarats explains the Weston/Aubry motivation not to give credit as “partly that old tradition of borrowing without attribution and the other part was perhaps a little bit of that competitive feeling. It doesn’t look quite as good if you admit that the information came from somebody else. It raises the question-‘Well, why didn’t you get the information yourself?'”
In the last of Macdonell’s three problem areas-the Belanger interview in which Weston described him as “shaking his head” Weston did in fact try to get the information for himself. Unlike the Lahaie and Cossette sections taken from published stories, he did interview Belanger personally. But the addition of the “shaking his head” stage direction particularly bothered Honderich and Miller as well as Aspevig. While no one goes so far as to call it fabrication, Aspevig says that, in the context of the previously published quotation, it suggests a “setious, intentional misrepresentation” and breach of the implied trust between writers and readers. Readers trust that what they read is the product of the writer’s own efforts unless told otherwise, he says. When that tacit understanding is broken, a fundamental condition of journalistic credibility is breached and readers are justified in being suspicious of the accuracy of the entire story.
The controversy surrounding the awards has shone a spotlight on several ethical problems-plagiarism and good journalistic practice; the relationship between the writer and the reader; and the effect the tradition of not knocking other newspapers has on all these issues. The question of how or even if the industry, professional organizations and individual journalists will deal with these matters remains to be answered. For Alexander Norris, there were few options. He quit the CA] in disgust after it upheld the award to Weston and Aubry. In his letter of resignation he says the CA] “no longer has the moral authority to speak on issues of journalistic ethics.” Jock Ferguson, an award-winning investigative reporter and a founding member of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, the precursor of the CA], says the organization has no focus and doesn’t know what it stands for. He is also no longer a member and, like Norris, he says the award should have been revoked.
A less dramatic response to the affair comes from Eliza Thompson, a CA] board member and an original complaint She has decided to stay on at the CA] to work with other b members on a code of ethics. A national association like the I with over 1,000 members might be a good source for a journalistic code, but Bury says pointedly, “We are not responsible for ethics of journalists.” A model code of ethics would never beci a policy of the organization, according to Bury, because then too many individual codes to come up with one that could as everyone.
Other industry bodies are trying to combat the issue, however The Ottawa Citizen now has its own policy book that including lengthy definition of plagiarism. Patley says it was underway be the awards controversy. “I think the better papers leave no dc with their reporters on what their ethical standards are,” he say Although the NNA isn’t codifying its ethics, it has decided we should be responsible for them. To avoid the inner turmoil of year’s controversy, the governors have amended NNA rules so t in the future they alone will decide disputes which reflect on NNA standards.
Still, the industry as a whole gives no sign that the issues rai by the profile haven’t been buried prematurely. After all, the N~ and CA] upheld their awards so why discuss it further? Maybe, was plagiarism, maybe it wasn’t. Daily newspapering doesn’t all much time for reflection. There are deadlines to meet. Meanwhile the most difficult ethical question raised by the Lepine profile the ongoing breaches of trust between journalists and their readers-remains unexamined. At least until the next time, who something more than a few withdrawn protest resignations may needed to root out the cancer within.
by Marlene Fine
Marlene Fine was an Issues Editor for the Summer 1992 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.