The damage done by Post reporter Sari Horwitz’s plagiarism

“Plagiarism is one of journalism’s unforgivable sins.” That’s a quote from The Washington Post’s internal code of standards and ethics. “Attribution of material from other newspapers and other media must be total,” the code states.

Sari Horwitz, a 27-year veteran, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Post, a woman almost universally liked and respected here, violated that standard twice within a week, copying and pasting material from the Arizona Republic on March 4 and March 10 in online stories (published in print on March 5 and 11) about Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January. As a result, she was suspended from The Post for three months without pay.

Marcus Brauchli, Post executive editor, issued an appropriate public apology and a direct one to the Republic and its staff. From the moment he learned of the plagiarism on Monday, March 14, via an e-mail from the Republic that also came to me as ombudsman, he took it seriously, investigated and acted quickly to discipline Horwitz. As Brauchli put it more colloquially in an interview: “Sari screwed up. She knows she screwed up.”

I’m a hard-liner on plagiarism. I view it as theft. I came up in journalism working at smaller publications that competed with bigger papers — regional and national dailies with abundantly more resources and reporters. We worked doubly hard and frequently scooped our competition.

Reporters at those larger publications regularly “stole” from us, sometimes arrogantly so. In the early years it made me angry, but pretty soon it happened so often, I viewed it with a mix of anger and triumph. Our stories were driving the news and the local debate, forcing our bigger competitors to follow, imitate and occasionally credit us.

But not once did any reporter ever cut and paste whole sentences and paragraphs from something I or my colleagues wrote, as Horwitz did. It’s as audacious as it is lazy. And it is foolish in an age when most journalism is obtainable in seconds with a few mouse clicks.

So my sympathies are with the Arizona Republic and Dennis Wagner, the reporter who did the initial work on the story that was most plagiarized. He made the phone calls, did the legwork and picked out the most compelling parts of the court documents released about Loughner. “It’s not so unusual that you see your stuff paraphrased,” Wagner said. “But then I got the feeling as I read it that it was almost identical, in structure and in wording. I was floored.”

Wagner and his editor, Kristen DelGuzzi, did due diligence, looking at other Horwitz stories, but found no other instances of plagiarism. The Post did, too, finding no other examples in Horwitz’s work on the Arizona shootings or in a range of her other work over a decade. A Post review of more of her work is still ongoing.

But the damage is done, and it is lingering. It puts another chink in the already thin armor of journalism. Said Wagner: “It’s bad because it undermines the credibility not just of The Washington Post but of journalists in general. People think we take shortcuts and cheat, and it’s hurtful to all of us.”

So why did a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a woman known for her diligence with sources, her line-by-line fact checking, do this?

In an interview, Horwitz asked not to be quoted except for what she wrote in her apology. She was contrite and did not make excuses. A Tucson native, she cares about her home town and the Giffords story, and she volunteered to leave the investigative unit to be the lone Post reporter doing follow-up stories there.

According to Post colleagues, Horwitz was under deadline pressure to file for The Post’s Web site, rushing to write between two other scheduled interviews for a longer story. And she had been helping her mother, who still lives in Tucson, with some difficult health issues.

Scott Higham, her collaborator on several investigative pieces for The Post, including one that won a Pulitzer, said that Horwitz’s conduct was completely out of character. “Sari is an astonishing reporter, meticulous, relentless, conscientious, the most ethical person that I know. This is a complete aberration.”

The underlying theme here is the pressure that today’s minute-by-minute, Web-driven, do-more-with-less news culture puts on reporters and editors. The financial and competitive pressures are so intense that journalists are always looking over their shoulders, reading the competition obsessively. This leaves too little time for reflection, for standing back and asking what is really worth writing and what isn’t.

“We’re in a cut-and-paste world right now,” said Higham. “News is breaking every second. It’s a good lesson for all of us to take a deep breath, assess the situation and slow down a little bit.”

A Post reader, a local schoolteacher, called last week to comment on Horwitz’s mistake. Teaching her students about plagiarism, she said, has become her hardest task of the year because they are so accustomed to lifting information off the Internet with no attribution. She often uses The Post as a model for how to do it right. Her job just got harder.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on March 18, 2011.

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