OPINION: We must be able to trust media are ethical

WHEN our elected governments or unelected government agencies conspire to tell us less than the whole truth, only one bastion remains against that abuse of power: ethical journalists and the publishers who set them free to write that truth.

If we allow that bastion to disintegrate, our very democracy will be at risk - which makes the slow-motion, very personal train-wreck of Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente all the more discouraging.

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Wente is alleged to have plagiarized the work of Dan Gardner, an Ottawa Citizen columnist who wrote about Robert Paarlberg's book Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa.

The word plagiarize implies intent, which Wente assured her readers last week was not the case.

I have no plans, here, to cover details of the still unfolding story; enough of the depressing information can be found online, simply by plugging the words "Wente" and "plagiarism" into Google.

But from official journalism's online discussion - and from the voracious blog chatter - the way in which this story has evolved since July, 2009 is evidence enough to confirm society's growing impression that the mainstream media is ailing.

Firstly, it is only because Media Culpa blogger, Carol Wainio - an adjunct professor in visual arts at the University of Ottawa - was determined to unveil the truth that we even heard the story.

Then, once the genie was out of the bottle, the lacklustre way in which Wente's selfdescribed "unintentional" plagiarism was initially handled by Globe and Mail public editor, Sylvia Stead, and by editor-in-chief John Stackhouse made a bad situation worse.

As a result, although her writing caused the story, Wente is not the only one in the G&M halls to wear the fallout that resulted.

As I was doing my own online research for this column, I found numerous references to the fact that, just two months before Wente's lapse, Maureen Dowd, a Pulitzer awardwinning political columnist for the New York Times had used 43 of 45 words previously written by Josh Marshall, editor of the blog-site Talking Points Memo.

Although quickly acknowledged and corrected, Dowd's explanation that the words had been mentioned during a recent conversation with a friend suggests the two have enviable memories.

Marshall was more forgiving, however, in his post of May 19, 2009: "I generally think we're too quick to pull the trigger with charges of plagiarism," he wrote.

". . . Whatever the mechanics of how it happened, I never thought it was intentional. Dowd and the Times quickly corrected it, which I appreciated. For me, that's pretty much the end of it."

Why do I believe these incidents are important enough to be covered in a North Shore paper?

In part, it's because although plagiarism goes against the tenets of ethical journalism, its tentacles have crept into our daily lives almost unnoticed. It can be seen on a regular basis in what passes for news items that are little more than reworked press releases from politicians and government agencies.

Left unchecked, it will erode not only the mainstream media that should be the underpinning of our democracy, but democracy itself.

If readers cannot trust writers to acknowledge the work of others, how can they trust anything else journalists write?

That's not to suggest the rules are as simple as placing everything someone said or wrote inside a pair of quotation marks; the original thoughts and ideas must also be protected.

So how does a writer be timely enough with a story, yet avoid the perception that s/he has expropriated someone else's idea?

The truth is: With difficulty.

Two weeks ago, when I began my Sept. 26 column, I considered including mention of the overdue need for a value-for-money audit of TransLink. "That would be a perfect first task for the new municipal auditor general," said I. "That appointment was promised in January; how long does it take?"

A day and a half later, someone else in the media asked the question out loud. "Darn!" I thought. "If I mention it now, it'll look as though I piggy-backed on that idea."

One short anecdote to illustrate how difficult it is to produce completely original work in today's world of instant communications, online political commentary and catch phrases.

As the Wente story demonstrates, there is an urgent need to review and update standards that have served traditional media activities well since the 1800s. The Globe and Mail has begun that process by revising the reporting structure for its public editor who now reports directly to the publisher rather than to the editor-in-chief - a simple change that removed Stead's potential for conflict with the needs of the newsroom.

Lastly, if the still-murky story that erupted last Friday between the Georgia Straight newspaper and former VANOC president and CEO John Furlong does nothing else, it will drive home this point: We cannot allow any erosion of our trust that all members of an ethical media will, at all times, be free to tell us nothing but the truth.

The survival of our democracy and the reputations of our citizens lie in the hands of that trust.

rimco@shaw.ca

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