J-Source’s Q&A with Carol Wainio
Carol Wainio is a Canadian visual artist and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa. She has also been writing about the media and Canadian columnists for years on her blog, Media Culpa. She answered a few questions from J-Source associate editor Belinda Alzner about why she blogs, why the focus on Wente and why she thinks newspapers aren't clear enough with the public about their standards.
Carol Wainio is a Canadian visual artist and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa. She has also been writing about the media and Canadian columnists for years on her blog, Media Culpa. She has pointed out instances where Maclean’s Mark Steyn supposedly re-purposed his own work, and she took her complaints over The Ottawa Citizen’s David Warren’s columns to the Ontario Press Council after blogging about them on Media Culpa.
More recently, she has been meticulously checking The Globe and Mail national columnist Margaret Wente's pieces. Last week, one post about a 2009 column of Margaret Wente’s caught fire on social media, leading public editor Sylvia Stead to respond to the questions of plagiarism raised by Wainio — a response that some felt was inadequate.
The Globe has since provided a more comprehensive response. Tuesday evening, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse published a memo to staff in which he called Wente’s column “unacceptable” and Wente wrote a response column, in which she admitted to mistakes but maintained she was not “a serial plagiarist.” Today, Stead published another post, giving advice to reporters and editors on how to avoid such mistakes and made note that her post from Friday was “not well considered” in her haste to respond.
Late last week, Wainio agreed to answer some questions for J-Source via email. Below is an edited excerpt of her responses. (Some of which Wainio published on her blog Friday evening.)
J-Source: You have been blogging on Media Culpa for a number of years now. What prompted you to start the blog? And what has driven you to continue it over time?
Carol Wainio: I started the blog reluctantly; to document issues I’d identified which I felt were not being sufficiently addressed when brought to the attention of editors.
I would initially send an email, sometimes copying it to other journalists or relevant parties – to ask, “is this acceptable practice?” I don’t think newspapers focus enough on making their standards clear to readers and the public. Nor do they seem sufficiently consistent in their application of those standards.
I continue it because, once started, I thought I’d be thorough and follow up, and because experience led to me conclude that the problems were often part of a pattern. I felt if they were not documented and addressed, the problems would continue.
J-Source: You have looked at the work of other columnists over that time, including that of Mark Steyn from Maclean’s and David Warren from The Ottawa Citizen. More recently, your blogging has focused primarily on Margaret Wente. [On Thursday] I counted 31 postings on Media Culpa about Wente — or about corrections or notes The Globe had issued on her work — since May 2011. Why the focus on Wente?
CW: Recently it’s focused on Ms. Wente because of the accumulating attribution and/or factual problems, and again I want to document them as a matter of public record, and to serve as data that can be used in assessing standards of practice and consistency.
I think sloppy attribution has consequences bigger than plagiarism. It can, and does, produce serious factual errors, and also erodes public trust.
Prior to the article that’s getting so much attention now, I identified several attribution and other errors in Margaret Wente’s writing, some of which were acknowledged by Editor’s Notes. The fake Occupy protester “John” is the most striking, and serious, example. It could be considered a kind of fabulism no less serious than Jonah Lehrer’s invented Dylan quote. The only difference is that Ms. Wente didn’t write it herself. Through the absence of attribution, she created a kind of “collage” fabrication – effectively lifting a character from one situation and pasting him into another time and place to become the “face” of the Occupy movement. That seems serious to me, and unacceptable.
(J-Source note: Wente’s column that refers to John and the Occupy movement, along with the appended Editor’s Note from The Globe can be found here.)
Personally, I think a documented history of attribution problems part of a pattern that reflects on the current article. My purpose is to document them, to put them before the public and see how they stack up against other journalist’s practices – like Fareed Zakaria or Lehrer, or Dowd, and to start a discussion about whether the standards and consequences are consistent and rigorous enough.
But if editors, the public and the journalism community feel the repeated pattern of practice I’ve documented is acceptable, then that’s fine. It should be put it plainly out there so everyone can see it – including young journalists and freelancers who should be aware of what is considered acceptable in terms of plagiarism. If the bar is going to be low – and that’s a debate we should have – at least make it an even playing field, and a public one, so everyone can see it.
And while the Globe eventually acknowledged that Ms. Wente’s “John”, the “face of the Occupy protests”, actually had nothing to do with them, it didn’t address the much more interesting issue of what kinds of ongoing practices allowed him to be in her column.
If there are a lot of posts related to Margaret Wente at the moment (I’ve never counted), that’s simply reflects repeated and ongoing issues (some attribution some factual). Some were corrected, others not – though uncorrected ones seem at least as egregious as corrected ones. I may also aggregate similar kinds of problems and look at them in a separate post. And I post the corrections I obtain as separate items, so there’s some duplication.[node:ad]
(J-Source note: In her initial response, The Globe’s public editor Sylvia Stead acknowledged that some corrections had been added to Wente’s columns.)
I put them all up for comparison, to ask why does this 25 word bit Ms. Wente borrowed from the New York Times merit an Editor’ Note when a larger bit from some other source doesn’t?
In the case of David Warren, the factual and attribution errors were significantly reduced after the Ontario Press Council decision, leading me to wonder whether there is a kind of enabling of those kinds of practices which would benefit from public scrutiny.
J-Source: What reactions to the blog have you received? From readers, journalists and The Globe and Mail?
CW: I’m a novice and the blog has had a small readership – ’til now, at least. I wasn’t keeping track of hits until the new format began providing statistics automatically. Some journalists were interested and aware of it.
The reaction from the Globe has been frosty – both to the blog and to my emails. I would usually notify them by email before posting.
After a few such issues, including some which warranted a correction, I received a response from Sylvia Stead (now Public Editor) in May, 2011, addressed, Dear Ms. Wainio and Media Culpa which began “This is a private letter, not for publication”.
(J-Source note: J-Source cannot independently verify the contents of this email and have thus decided to not publish the contents of it as explained by Wainio. Also, to clarify: Stead was The Globe’s associate editor in May 2011)
Just prior to that email from Ms. Stead, the Globe had been obliged to correct an attribution error I brought to them in which Ms. Wente borrowed a quote from an AP story, but turned the scientist who gave it into a fisherman. Just after the email, they were obliged to correct a few sentences which I pointed out had appeared in the New York Times. So clearly my concerns were not without merit, and they were well aware of a pattern.
(J-Source note: Here is the column in question about the fisherman quote. No correction appears on it, though Wainio noted on Media Culpa that one was issued. And this is the column that Wainio says had sentences that appeared in the New York Times. A correction was issued on it, though not in reference to the attribution. There are no timestamps on the appended Editor’s Notes, so we are unable to verify when they were added.)
While I received no further response from the Globe, I continued to apprise them of problems, usually addressing them to John Stackhouse. Other corrections followed – for the “John” in Ms. Wente’s Occupy story and some improperly attributed language by Christopher Lasch/Kenneth Anderson, and another related to a Pew report on religion, and others more recently.
(J-Source note: The Lasch/Anderson attribution is addressed in the Editor’s Note at the bottom of this column.)
J-Source: Can you tell me a bit more about yourself outside of your media blogging?
CW: I don’t think there’s much of interest there. I’m a fairly well known Canadian visual artist with work in major museums. I have two children, and am an Adjunct Professor at the University of Ottawa. I quit full time teaching to focus on my practice and my kids, and for their sake I care deeply about the quality and integrity of public discourse. The blog is a hobby, and it didn’t carry my name for a number of reasons – in part because, sadly, I had come to understand I couldn’t rely on all journalists or editors to fairly represent it, but mainly because I have a web presence related to my work which I wanted to keep separate. It was an open secret and I had been publicly associated with the blog in the past. And recently I have written on similar issues under my own name for The Mark.