Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feeling Fit: Your Weekly Dose of Plagiarism

It's "Feeling Fit" Sunday and the Charlotte Sun newspaper's reputation for plagiarism is upheld, once again, on page 11. Barbara Pierce kicks off her feature "Should Mom go to an assisted living facility?" this way: "When seniors begin to see a decline in their personal or mental health, assisted living becomes a good option."

That's also the way that the Internet site opens its blog, Who Lives in Assisted Living: "When aging senior citizens begin to see a decline in their personal or mental health, assisted living care becomes a real benefit."

That same blog continues with, "Assisted living offers ... the comforts of home, as well as a social community in which to stay active."

Pierce's second paragraph changes the order a bit, but retains the blog's key words and distinctive phrasing: "Assisted living offers a community in which to stay active, with the comforts of home."

Pierce's third paragraph claims assisted living facilities provide a "desirable, cost-effective and dignified living environment," wording identical to the "Unlimited Care" website for a Spring, Texas, facility whose cottages provide a "... desirable, cost-effective and dignified living environment." The Texas site mentions "phenomenal growth" and Pierce does likewise.*

Although Pierce can read Internet websites well enough to plagiarize, she apparently can't read the part where says she can't use its material if she plans to "sell or otherwise charge" for the material, placed posted at the bottom of every page under "Reprints and Permissions." That's noteworthy because Pierce uses that website's content to fill out a dozen or so inches of a feature that she, we assume, sold to one of the profitable publications of Sun Coast Media Group, which in turn charges subscribers $1.75 to read the writing she was paid to produce

*Neither the Texas writer nor the plagiarist explains what phenomenal growth is. In the newspaper's Charlotte County home, that would be 14 new beds last year.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Headline Writer Misses the Joke; Column Writer Amazed by Discovery of "Secret" Product

Brett Slattery puts his tongue firmly in cheek and launches his advertisement for "Goof Off-Rust Stain Remover" (thinly disguised as column) by telling readers to paint their "home driveways and sidewalks rust-colored" to hide hard-water stains.

The kids on the copy desk decided that would make a dandy headline, entirely missing the part where the Goof Off promoter says, "On second thought, forget about painting your home driveway and sidewalks rust-colored," and gets on with urging readers to buy a "secret" product that he found "amazing" for keeping his house-for-sale signs tidy.

Sun Coast Media Group readers are accustomed to strange headlines emanating from the copy desk because the kids are yet not fully comfortable with the concept of reading. What subscribers are less accustomed to is a "columnist" who hasn't read the product label of an "amazing secret" that he's promoting.

The label Slattery isn't reading says his "amazing" and "secret" product is a 10-percent concentration of oxalic acid laced with a touch of hydrofluoric acid. Of course this reactive compound removes iron stains, as any high school chemistry student knows. It's a process called chelation, a multiple-ion bonding (chelate is Greek for "claw") that takes place at room temperature. It's simple: an oxalic acid molecule grabs on to several Fe2O3 (rust) electrons and forms a complex molecule that's highly water soluable. The new compound is ferric oxalate, and it rinses away with water.

It's neither "secret" nor "amazing;" it's 11th grade chemistry.

And by the way, do what Slattery forgot to tell you: Buy oxalic acid crystals for less than a buck a pound at the hardware store and dilute it yourself -- but be sure to read the label. It can be nasty stuff.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

No Apologies

"That divorce is a prominent source of emotional anguish and suffering for children is obvious..." That's the opening of Rowland W. Folensbee Jr. and Florence F. Eddins-Folensbee's book review written six years ago for and published in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

It's also a sentence published in the July 10 Charlotte Sun tab, "Feeling Fit." The news feature writer, Barbara Pierce, did not credit or acknowledge the Folensbees or their academic journal.

What the writer did was enclose that sentence in quotation marks and stuff it into the mouth of divorce researcher Judith S. Wallerstein. (Scroll down to see July 10 post.) The Charlotte Sun's feature writer also attributed another quote to Wallerstein, but that one hasn't yet been located in any of Wallerstein's works.

Pierce's motive may have been to give the story a dose of credibility that she, as a reporter, may have felt unable to deliver -- a local feature that would stand on its own merit. Let's use the Socratic method to see how well that worked.

Three questions are on the board for SCMG's ethics refresher workshop: (1) Should readers be told they've been handed a newspaper story which includes both stolen and apparently fabricated quotes that the writer inserted into the mouth of a person who wasn't interviewed? (2) Should the record be corrected to say one of the quotes comes from a publication that wasn't credited as the source? (3) Should the famous person who was not interviewed receive an apology for being made to appear to be in places where she wasn't, speaking to people she didn't speak to and saying things that she did not say?

Until "Feeling Fit" came along, Old Word Wolf would have considered these to be purely rhetorical questions -- ones in which the answer is universally understood.

Neither tab editor Karin Lillis, tab publisher David Powell, SCMG president David Dunn-Rankin nor writer Barbara Pierce has taken out space to set the record straight so the questions remain open for discussion. Do I see a hand in the back of the room?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Shabbat Plagiarism

It's Saturday morning. The Charlotte Sun has hit the driveway. We slip it from its sleeve and carry it to the breakfast table where the coffee is strong and the danish is sweet. Deep inside the newspaper's local section, Rabbi Solomon Agin tackles a current moral problem.

The teacher examines public intrusion via newspapers and such into private lives (of indiscreet politicians, for example) using the Scales of Justice where wisdom's fulcrum balances Torah on one side, and on the other -- another rabbi's blog.

Yes, Rabbi Agin has turned to Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg's Blog and copied his June 11 sermon, representing it to Charlotte Sun editors as his own words of wisdom.

A couple of red flags would alert any reasonably awake newspaper editor. The first unfurls during the exercise of actually reading the copy: The sermon ends in mid-exposition. A genre that promises a lesson ends with the puzzling and arcane: "And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because he married a Cushite woman."

Is this all there is? Yes and no. Yes; this is all the space the Charlotte Sun has for a Shabbat sermon. Cut it from the bottom. But why would a writer submit an article that requires four times the space allotted to discuss?

So, no, this is not all. The remaining 1,600 words are available on the Internet from the man who actually did the theology and exegesis, not to mention the blogging.

The second red flag is the desk itself, the desk of the newpaper's "religion editor" (or whoever pretends to this noble task).

The item comes from the word processor of a moral leader in the community. However, Charlotte Sun's religion editor should know by now that a man of god cannot be expected to translate the seventh commandment, "Thou shall not steal," to real-life journalism. And why should the local editor be expected to know this? Because Sun Coast Media Group's religion desk has a nationally recognized track record -- see left rail -- for hosting holy plagiarists.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fun with Numbers: Informing the Citizenry

Editor Mat Delaney reports Lake Placid's town fathers have set next year's property tax rate at 3.81 mills. He says the millage rate represents $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed value.

No, it doesn't. That millage rate represents $3.81 for every $1,000 assessed.

Delaney goes on to compound the error. He says a home "valued" at $50,000 would see a tax bill of $500. If this is supposed to be an example of a one-mill levy, he misses by a factor of ten (50,000 x 0.001 = 50). But, based on the news out of city hall, that tax bill would actually be $190.50 (50,000 x 0.00381).

As for that "tax bill" that he glibly predicts will be seen: Delaney forgets to mention that the city's levy is only part of the local property tax package that will include millages earmarked for schools, county government and services, state water management and any local taxing districts the citizenry voted to fund for fire, ambulance, mosquito control, etc., etc., etc.

If you write about numbers, you have to be numerate. If you cover city hall, it's not your job to paint a rosy picture by reporting only half the story.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Questionable Quotes Mar Local Feature

Barbara Pierce, Sun-Herald "correspondent," interviews a local practitioner about divorce's effect on children, and her reporting is a major feature in this morning's "fitness" tab.

Pierce quotes a local source and follows up with a second expert:

"Divorce is a prominent source of emotional anguish and suffering for children," said Judith Wallerstein, PhD, University of Berkeley, who did a 25-year study of children and divorce. "Divorce will involve sorrow and loss for your child."

"There are some legitimate reasons to get divorced," Taylor added.

The quote sandwich and attribution "Taylor added" strongly suggest both the local expert and the out-of-town expert are in the room with correspondent Pierce also present, reporting what the experts say to each other and helpfully explaining that Taylor "added" to Wallerstein's remark.

But why, a reader or editor might reasonably wonder: With such a well-known and high-powered expert in the room as Wallerstein, one who has oodles of primary data at her fingertips, why would the reporter use Wallerstein's expertise just once in 25 inches, opting instead to feature the observations of the less-expert local counselor, who -- oddly -- is given the role of adding to the national expert's observations?

If the story's bizarre imbalance isn't enough to give pause, surely an editor would detect one or two of at least four additional red flags signaling a reporter run amok:

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 1: Correspondent Pierce omits any identification of the context in which she heard the out-of-town expert, Wallerstein, tell the reporter her thoughts ("... said in an e-mail," " ... said in a telephone interview from her New York offices," "... said during her keynote address to the National Social Worker's convention held last December in Las Vegas ... "). The omission is dishonest. The reporter doesn't truthfully explain how or when she came to know that Wallerstein said what her story claims she said.

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 2: With Correspondent Pierce making it appear as if she had interviewed Wallerstein when it seems likely that she may not have, a reasonably alert editor would make a move to query the reporter for the quote's actual source. If it had turned out that the reporter lifted the words from Wallerstein's numerous entries at Huffington Post or from another newspaper article or from a professional journal, then that source must be named -- at least according to the ethical standards at most modern newspapers. If the real source of the quote is not named, then the reporter is plagiarizing from a publication she has not credited.

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 3: Maybe the quote does not come from a particular source. Maybe Correspondent Pierce (herself a social worker, according to her article's footnote) is paraphrasing the gist of what she thinks Wallerstein has said in a book or article. If this is the case, then the reporter has fabricated the quotation -- actually, fabricated two quotations.

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 4: There's no such institution as "University of Berkeley." Wallerstein is famously a Senior Lecturer Emerita at the University of California's Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

The editor and reporter can probably reach her through UC Berkeley to confirm facts, correct errors, and apologize for putting words in her mouth.

In other news from the fitness desk ...

Story: Avoid "wacky ingredients" and make "favorite snacks from scratch."

Editor's file art choice: A jar of red licorice twists. What's in a licorice twist? Let's read a Twizzlers' label: Corn syrup, wheat flour, sugar, cornstarch, licorice extract, palm oil, natural and artificial flavors, glycerin potassium sorbate, artificial color (Blue 1 and Red 40), caramel color, soy lecithin.

How might readers make a healthy Twizzler from scratch? That's not in the story.

The unintentional irony of a headline elsewhere in the same edition pretty much sums it up.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

M-W: "An Ignorant Corruption of the Language"

"It may be that eventually hone in on will become so common that dictionaries will begin to enter it as a standard phrase; and then usage commentators will routinely rail against it as an ignorant corruption of the language. This is a development we can all look forward to, but its time is not yet. ... we recommend that you use home in on ...:" Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Crossword Correction of the Year

Three days ago, Charlotte Sun-Herald page-maker uppers ran the wrong crossword puzzle. Now, it's Sunday, and just to make sure anyone still struggling with Wednesday's 58 Down ("Coffee, Tea, ___ ___?"), the nostra culpa goes in a yellow box, outlined in black and sitting tall on the front page: top right, next to the second most important ink of the day, troop deaths in Afghanistan. The two-line all-caps hed sends the red alert: "CROSSWORD ERROR."

And, then, for those who follow the front-page directions and turn to A Section Page 11, yet another version of the apology gobbles up the news hole.

Sun Coast Media Group's five inches of crossword puzzle apologies aren't the only errors editors are fixing today. Buried deep in the quack-advert tab, back of the front cover, editors manage to squeeze out five lines: "A story in the June 26 issue of Feeling Fit, "Protecting your skin from dangerous UV rays" (page 14) was erroneously attributed to Tammy Jones of Peace River Medical Center. Her byline should not have appeared on the story."

Screw up the crossword puzzle and it's Shakespearean. Find yourself forced to acknowledge that a writer plagiarized and -- well, at least it's something.