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The Globe and Mail's problem goes much deeper than Margaret Wente

Image: Can Pac Swire/flickr

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So let's call it Wentegate: The Sequel.

Once again, The Globe and Mail has been forced to correct and apologize for the ethical transgressions of its most prominent commentator, Margaret Wente.

And once again, it has handled the problem in a less than satisfactory manner.

Two correction/apologies published in today's paper address what the Globe calls errors in attribution in columns written by Wente over the last two months. Yet the apologies do not mention Wente by name. Nor is the word "plagiarism" used in a fess-up column written by the paper's public editor, Sylvia Stead. Similarly, a statement of reget made public by the Globe's editor, David Walmsley, does not mention that his paper is dealing with the second serious charge of plagiarism committed by Wente in the last four years.

No mention is made of any punishment, even though Walmsley says Wente's journalism falls short of the paper's standards. He says only that "the opinion team will be working closely with Peggy to make sure this cannot happen again," whatever that means.

Stead claims that Wente "clearly regrets these mistakes," although we have not heard directly from Wente which mistakes she is prepared to regret. Last time this happened, she used her column to (a) directly attack her accuser, and (b) claim she was just a victim of people who didn't like her right-of-centre opinions.

Her self-defence that time was unprofessional and outrageous. It won't be so easy this time for either her or the Globe.

Evidence that she has a serial plagiarism problem is convincing and undeniable. That evidence is also rapidly growing. Since the Globe investigated the two instances of plagiarism it apologized for today, six other cases of similar transgressions have been uncovered by fact-checkers working for online news sites like Canadaland and BuzzFeed. I expect more cases will surface in the next few days.

The Globe needs to realize that its problem is Wente but goes much deeper than Wente. There seems to be a culture of denial at the highest levels of the newspaper that has the potential to do the franchize deeper harm. Top editors have been warned about her repeatedly, and repeatedly they have done nothing. The rot, I'm afraid, goes to the very top.

In its handling of the Wente problem over the past four years, the Globe has failed to learn the lessons that other news media have learned when faced with similar complaints about their credibility.

In 2004, faced with allegations of plagiarism and fabrication against its star foreign correspondent, USAToday called in an outside team of prominent journalists to investigate the journalism of Jack Kelley. They re-reported 720 of his stories, and found evidence of made-up sources, plagiarized quotes and phrases and story components that were fabricated altogether. The scandal resulted in the resignation of not only Kelley but the paper's editor and managing editor.

A year earlier, the New York Times was tipped off to one instance of suspected plagiarism committed by a young reporter named Jayson Blair. An investigation found fabrication and plagiarism in a number of his stories. The Times reported on Blair's journalistic misdeeds in an unprecedented 7,239-word front page story headlined "Times reporter who resigned left long trail of deception." The story called the scandal "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." The paper's top two editors were forced to resign.

Earlier in the 1990s, the Boston Globe did the right thing when allegations of plagiarism surfaced involving longtime star columnist Mike Barnickle. He was immediately suspended and subsequently fired when an internal investigation uncovered repeated instances of fabrication.

So what should a media organization do when faced with such evidence?

Craig Silverman and Kelly McBride, media ethics specialists writing for the Poynter Institute, spell out best practices in dealing with accusations of plagiarism -- none of which The Globe and Mail seems to have followed.

"Recruit a small team of editors to randomly contact suspect sources from the writer's work and check out other information that could fit a pattern of fabrication.

"While the investigation is ongoing, the reporter should not publish any new materal. Many editors will suspend the writer with or without pay during this phase.

"In a case of verified fabrication, suspension is the minimal response. Termination is a more fitting punishment."

If Margaret Wente is still writing her column a week from now, I will be surprised. If I were her, I would have no alternative but to offer my immediate resignation.

Image: Can Pac Swire/flickr

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