Can Toronto Star reporters take material from the Star's own archives? Sometimes, yes. But outright copying of a colleague's work is plagiarism, writes public editor Kathy English.

 By Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star

As I’ve written in the past, any allegation of plagiarism in the Toronto Star is always cause for serious concern.

I’ve also told you that in setting out standards on plagiarism, the newsroom journalistic standards guide states that “the Star does not present other media’s reporting as its own or publish unattributed material from other sources.”

Last week, the Star published a public editor note telling readers that an Aug. 3 article about the vanity licence plates rejected by the Ontario government incorrectly contained six paragraphs that were plagiarized “in form and substance” from the work of another Star journalist who wrote aboutcensored vanity licence plates in October 2010.

In recent days I’ve heard from several journalism professors, as well as reporters, columnists and editors from the Star and other news organizations, all seeking answers to the same questions: What’s up with that plagiarism correction? Can’t Star reporters take material from the Star’s own archives?


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Sometimes, yes. But this was not a matter of grabbing a couple of paragraphs of background information from the Star’s archives, as I expect every journalist here has done.

This was indeed a clear case of plagiarism.

Here’s what happened. Star summer intern and data/photo journalist Marc Ellison pitched his editors on a data journalism project that included creating a searchable database of banned licence plates and writing a story based on the data.

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In writing his story, Ellison copied the gist of a creative and clever “lead” — the opening sentence that journalists put much effort into crafting to grab readers and compel them to read on — and several other paragraphs written by Star reporter Daniel Dale three years ago.

Ellison’s plagiarized material also included a statement Dale had obtained from the Ontario Transportation Ministry defending its decisions on vanity plates. Ellison repeated that statement word-for-word without making clear it was a response given three years ago.

When Dale read Ellison’s story he pointed out the strong similarities to his previous work on that same topic to City Editor Irene Gentle. Dale told me he was “mostly bewildered” on reading Ellison’s piece.

“I’m not dead, I still work for the Star, and Marc had told me he was doing the story, yet he seemed to assume that I wouldn’t notice that he’d copied my work, which remains puzzling to me.”

Gentle quickly concluded this was an egregious example of plagiarism.

To continue reading this column, please go to thestar.com where it was originally published.

 

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.