Media Experts Dan Okrent, Jack Shafer, and David Carr Discuss ESPN's Plagiarism Problem: "If I Were Them, I Would Be Embarrassed"

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It's now been 138 days since we turned up ESPN entertainment writer Lynn Hoppes's extensive habit of copying and pasting from Wikipedia. If you click today on any of those stories—10 that we found, covering 12 examples of plagiarism—you'll find them just as they were several months ago. The plagiarism is still there, without any revision or acknowledgement by ESPN. We've reminded ESPN about this a few times and to no avail. Is it institutional pride? Spite? Indifference? We wouldn't know since ESPN rolled out a "no comment" when we asked.


So we reached out to people who have—ahem—perhaps a bit more authority on journalistic practice than we do and who were willing to comment. We talked with fantasy-sports founding father and The New York Times' first ombudsman Dan Okrent, Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer, and New York Times media columnist David Carr.


Here's what they had to say.

Dan Okrent:

What would you do?

If it were my publication, I would put in a note that said the original versions inappropriately appropriated. Or something like that—‘It used language that appeared in other sources so here's the revised version.' You want to acknowledge both the misdemeanor-or you want to acknowledge the crime—and the correction. That would be the gold standard way of doing it.


And which standard has ESPN applied? Bronze? Tin?

Well they're not applying a standard. No standard. Or a standard of a substance that I've never heard of.


So what's the verdict here, as they keep ignoring it?

If I were them, I would be embarrassed. If you do things wrong, you should acknowledge that you've done something wrong and you should correct it. That's the simple way of putting it.


Jack Shafer:

Have you ever seen anything like this before?

I can't think of a case in which a documented allegation of plagiarism as wide as your allegation is, has just been stonewalled, just been ignored.


Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent of the time the people in the business are mensches enough to acknowledge and reprimand or chastise the plagiarist. I can't think of an analogous case ever.


How many cases of plagiarism have you seen over the years?

Hundreds. Easily, I've read about hundreds. If I'm not into the thousands it's only because my memory isn't that strong.


Well, at least ESPN did the right thing (at first!) and called Hoppes plagiarism "journalistic laziness."

That's not what it is. That's not laziness. My column is occasionally example of journalistic laziness, but there's no plagiarism in it. If I were to go and clip and paste a paragraph of your work, that's not lazy. That's plagiarism. Laziness is not making the extra call, laziness is not doing spell check, laziness is not bothering to get your facts straight. I think the real crime—one of the shaming crimes here—would be no, it's not laziness. It's as if I catch you sleeping with my girlfriend and I yell at you and you say yes, this was sexual laziness. No it's not.


Yes, it's pretty weird.

If journalism is about the business of truth finding, it seems incumbent upon ESPN to answer these questions honestly. But if they're not going to answer these questions honestly, we have to ask ourselves what business are they in. Are they in the pure entertainment business? If they're in the pure entertainment business, is plagiarism allowed there? I'm rather perplexed by the whole thing.


And here's Times' media columnist David Carr who wrote in an email that parts of his response are from sources "in uncredited fashion and some of it is of my own making. The reader will be left to figure out which is which." He continued: "The fact that ESPN gives a no comment to Deadspin's inquiries on the matter is a sign of either institutional pride or, one might say, 'journalistic laziness,' of the kind that I have displayed by lifting part of this response and representing it as my own."

ESPN appears to be feeding its audiences work that it is has already defined as spoiled goods. If the posts in questions were so corrupted that they were described as the product of "journalistic laziness," surely they merit amendation or some kind notice to the reader. It's clear from the stories I saw in Deadspin that the writer Lynn Hoppes engaged in a clinical example of plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as the "wrongful appropriation," "close imitation," or "purloining and publication" of another author's language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one's own original work.

Whether it's verbatim cut-and-paste jobs or ethically ambiguous paraphrasing, most of Hoppes's tidbits—and tidbits are the primary medium in which Hoppes works—are pulled uncredited from his subject's Wikipedia page.

That seems wrong and leaves it to the reader to do the work of discerning what work belongs to ESPN and what was merely lifted from elsewhere. Writers all use Wikipedia, but part of the bargain we have with our readers is that we go further, building on what we have learned there and rendering it through the prism of our thinking and writing. To do otherwise is a violation of not only journalistic ethics, but a breaking of the social contract and commonly held morals. Moralities are sets of self-perpetuating and ideologically-driven behaviors which keep us all on the right side of the line, the one the ESPN blithely crossed and continues to cross by not letting its readers in on the corruption within its newsgathering process.


Your move, Bristol.