Forgiving the unforgivable sin of plagiarism

After investigating the plagiarism committed by an Afghan intern, NPR editors have decided not to punish him for a crime that their own ethical handbook says is “unforgiveable.” They are right not to do so.

Ahmad Shafi indeed committed plagiarism. But his case is a textbook example of how fundamentalism even in journalism can forsake wisdom, and how rushes to judgment are dangerous. The swiftness of the newsroom’s response, meanwhile, was an example of its own worth copying.

What failed, which editors agree in retrospect, was the training of interns and foreign staffers in American journalism ethics.

Shafi has been a translator, occasional reporter and all-round “fixer” in

the Kabul bureau since early last year. Because of his promise and bravery, he was sent back to Washington to intern for the summer on the news desk as a way to train him to take on more responsibility. In a bit of irony, he worked on listeners’ requests for corrections.

From Kabul, Shafi had done two dozen short spot stories and Q&A’s for NPR’s hourly newscasts, as well as a handful of features for the shows and website. His mentor and backer there was bureau chief Quil Lawrence, who by coincidence had just rotated back to the United States to take on a new beat covering military veterans.

Ambitious, Shafi did a Web story shortly after his arrival on a resort that recently was attacked by the Taliban. He worked largely on his own time, with Lawrence’s help.

Then on a Sunday two weeks ago, sitting with a laptop in a Starbucks, Shafi clicked on a recent wrenching video of a young woman being executed by the Taliban for adultery, he later said in the internal review. He was reminded of the many similar such executions when the Taliban was in power, and set about to write a story.

On Monday morning, Shafi sought to show his draft to Lawrence but could not find him. Lawrence was in meetings all day. So Shafi took his draft to the website foreign editor, Greg Myre, who, as luck would have it, spent two decades as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press and The New York Times, much of it in the Middle East and South Asia. Myre told me that the story was too long and historical. But what stood out was a section some 900 words down that described a similar execution that Shafi wrote he had personally witnessed in 1998 in a football stadium. Myre said he told Shafi: “Let’s focus on that.”

To Myre, who knew Afghanistan well, the stadium section rang totally true. What he had no reason to suspect was that some lines in it came from somewhere else.

Myre and Shafi went back and forth through three drafts, when finally at 4:55 p.m., author and editor happy with their handiwork, the story went up on “A Taliban Execution Brings Back Painful Memories,” read the headline.

Forty minutes later, according to the internal review, an email arrived in the corrections inbox from a reader, Tim Freeman of Stockton, Calif. The Internet works fast. Wrote Freeman:

I’m not sure what’s up but sections of this article look like they have been based on Jason Burke’s 2001 article, “Diary: An execution in Kabul – 22 March 2001” at Ahmad mentions working w/ a female British Journalist. It seems like this could be Jason Burke but Jason is a male. The articles have very similar passages but the writers note sitting in different places during the execution. I’m not really into doing plagiarism checks or anything. I just happened to notice these two items are very similar.

It is unclear why Freeman would be comparing the two stories, but Burke’s article still comes up prominently in Google searches on Taliban executions. Two people inside NPR reacted almost immediately to Freeman’s observation.

Associate General Counsel Ashley Messenger, a First Amendment expert who monitors incoming corrections mail for issues of defamation and the like, read Freeman’s message and sent an email to Deputy Managing Editor Stu Seidel, who oversees news standards:

“Similarities may simply be coincidence ­ there are only a couple between the two stories, and there probably aren’t many ways to describe such incidents. But sending anyway just fyi, in case it comes up again.”

At almost exactly the same time, at 5:42 p.m., Rick Holter, a supervising editor for digital news, forwarded Freeman’s email to Myre, according to a timetable that Holter gave me. Myre opened Burke’s article. Moments later, according to the internal review, he wrote back to Holter: “We’ve got a problem.”

Seidel and Managing Editor David Sweeney were in a budget meeting at the time. Holter took charge, while Myre set out to find Shafi. The reporter was out socially with his mentor, Quil Lawrence.

All agree that Shafi immediately responded matter-of-factly to Myre that he copied the lines. He didn’t see what the problem was. According to the internal report, he told Myre, “Yeah, I just needed to jog my memory. I wasn’t taking notes (at the execution). I took a couple of lines from his [Burke’s] piece.”

Shafi elaborated with me. “English is not my first language,” he said, “and I got stuck looking for the right words about a Taliban public execution I had witnessed. I did not know that using the same descriptive language from another article is a major sin in journalism.”

“When I was writing the article,” he said, “I had to go back to my memory and go through these horrible scenes. It was going through horror scenes and I would try to match them with the details that stood out in my mind from specific executions, the golden prayer cap the condemned man was wearing, his gasping for air as he was taking his last breath, shots fired with the gun jerking (that’s where I was stuck with words) and the loud shots you hear. Then the “purring” sound of the man dying with his eyes fixed at you.”

All these graphic images are in the article. Many, such as the prayer cap and the purring, as well as many others not mentioned above, are not in Burke’s piece. Indeed, of the 766 words in the article, I count only 68 that can be said to come from Burke. They make up four sentences and two phrases. Readers are welcome to compare the two articles. The plagiarized parts are underlined in this Scribd document.

Burke’s own reaction to the copying was to be unfazed.

Now a reporter in South Asia for The Guardian and The Observer, he wrote me: “Of course you’re right to take any plagiarism seriously but I’m not particularly bothered about this particular incident. Frankly, I’m amazed that anyone is still reading material I wrote for fairly obscure publications in the spring of 2001 let alone actually copying it! Sounds like a (fairly major) error of judgment on the part of an intern but no malice in it.”

An obvious question is whether Shafi was at the execution at all. A Wall Street Journal intern was fired this summer for inventing quotes and sources. It would be easy enough for Shafi to have manufactured the other details, as the stadium executions happened weekly under the Taliban, Myre told me. Julian West, a British journalist with whom Shafi said he went to the stadium, resolved the mystery.

She wrote to me that, “yes, Shafi was working for me as a translator on that trip and was at the stadium with me.” Her recounting of the event was very similar to his.

To Sweeney and Seidel, the fact that Shafi did not try to hide or dissemble what he had done spoke in his favor. They met with him shortly after coming out of their budget meeting. “It would be different if he hadn’t immediately told the truth,” Sweeney told me.

What we have here, then, is a cultural gap. Other experts in Afghanistan have confirmed to me that it is common practice among Afghan journalists and researchers to copy and paste material they think is accurate.

I teach an advanced reporting and writing course at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and my own syllabus says:

If you copy text from the Internet (or from anywhere else) and put it into your story, you are plagiarizing. No excuses for this will be accepted, including “cultural differences.”

The rule is right, but the journalist first has to know the rule, and Shafi didn’t. As he told me, “In Afghanistan, journalism, press freedom and ethical issues surrounding them are still being developed. Ten years ago there was literally no media except a Taliban radio.”

Lawrence blames himself. “He did so well so quickly that we didn’t check that he had the basics,” Lawrence told me. “He’s here to learn the trade. I’m not going to excuse him of responsibility, but those who are mentoring should also have checked to be sure he had the abc’s before we let him play at such a height.”

Shafi is the fourth of four brothers to work for NPR in Kabul and, according to Lawrence, he has a proven trustworthiness that goes deeper than armchair matters such as plagiarism to issues of life and death. “He’s eager and incredibly sincere, and war-zone trustworthy,” Lawrence said. 
Shafi was totally “blindsided” by the error he committed, and immediately offered to resign, Lawrence said. “It was a stain on his honor,” added Lawrence.

“He’ll never do it again,” Lawrence said. “I’m certain of that. No doubt in my mind that he would never fabricate a story. I have no doubt about his integrity at all.”

Shafi himself told me, “I felt terrible once this was explained to me. I have learned a very hard lesson and I know this will never happen again.”

The internal review was done by one of NPR’s most respected former editors, Jonathan Kern. He’s a retired executive producer of All Things Considered, executive producer of training and author of Sound Reporting, the bible for radio journalists across the country. Kern recommended against disciplining Shafi. What he said was needed instead was American ethics training for interns and for foreign staffers hired abroad. Sweeney and other editors agree. I do, too.

And what of a stain on NPR? Lets return to the budget meeting where the two front line editors, Sweeney and Seidel, were tied up, leaving Holter, the supervising editor for digital news, in charge. Myre had just confirmed that he spoke to Shafi and that he admitted to the plagiarism. Holter made an executive decision. He ordered the story to be taken down, a rare and, for many, controversial thing to do.

At 5:55 p.m., only one hour after the story was posted, it was down. “I was trying to keep bad information from getting out,” Holter told me.

Seidel had seen the message from the lawyer Messenger while sitting in the meeting and now received a phone call from Holter informing him of what had been done.

The top editors emerged several minutes later to meet with everyone involved, including Shafi. Sweeney then informed Margaret Low Smith, the senior vice president for news. The concern now shifted to how to recall the story from the member stations who might have it on their website.

NPR’s digital media team was consulted. The solution was to post an
“editor’s note” in the blank spot where the story was. This would act like an updated version of the story and replace the actual story in the system for most stations, who post the NPR stories automatically.

The editor’s note, cleared by Low Smith and posted at 8:43 p.m., read:

Earlier today, we published and distributed a story by Ahmad Shafi recounting his experience witnessing a public execution in Kabul in 1998. Since the story was published, it has come to our attention that portions of the piece were copied from a story by Jason Burke, published by the London Review of Books in March 2001. We have removed Shafi’s story from our website.

This was, in other words, a note that was posted mainly for technical reasons and not informational ones.

The technical solution, moreover, didn’t work for all. Some stations pick what they want manually from the NPR’s news feed, making the automatic update useless. At 9:11 p.m., Marguerite Nutter, director of station relations, sent an email to all stations asking them to remove Shafi’s story.

In a little more than four hours, the entire episode was over. This is remarkably speedy, and speaks well for the sense of responsibility of mid-level editors like Holter and Myre and senior editors.

What they are left with, however, is an unresolved question of whether removing a story is the right thing to do, ever. Some critics maintain that even a wrong story is part of history and should be corrected — but not erased if even it physically can be on the many tentacles of the Web. A second issue is whether an editor’s note is required for informational reasons and transparency. These are new questions being debated around the world, however, for which there is no consensus. Perhaps this case study might contribute to the discussion.

Meanwhile, Shafi, who was not allowed to do any stories while the internal investigation was underway, will return to writing, producing and recording next week.

This column was originally published on on July 212, 2012.

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