Montreal Journalist Admits Plagiarism

On Friday the 22nd, a letter from the editor ran on the second page of the Montreal Gazette stating, in part, the following:

“This week, we learned about an incident that undermines the integrity of The Gazette. In her column of July 13, our writer Janet Bagnall used material from a column by Nicholas Kristof that was published in the New York Times on July 3.”

Apparently Janet Bagnall, a long time reporter and columnist at the paper, used some six paragraphs on Portland, Oregon’s, environmental record from Kristof’s column for a similar one of her own. She did so without any attribution and made no attempt to distinguish between her words and the words she pasted.

Bagnall, however, said she had a reason.

According to Bagnall, the whole thing was simply an absent-minded mistake. According to her, she had printed out the paragraphs in question along with other notes of hers and, when going back over them, simply transcribed those notes as her own. An innocent error.

Unfortunately though, I don’t buy it. As someone who holds a journalism degree and has done a fair amount of column writing, the whole story simply seems improbable.

First, even the most amateur of writers can tell the difference between their voice and someone else’s. Second, journalists have an obsession with citing everything, just in case they get fed bad information if nothing else. Finally, it seems unlikely that a journalist would “research” so heavily from another columnist. Journalists, especially columnists, don’t like repeating each other and usually go to the original sources in order to find a new take on an issue.

In the end, unless Bagnall is one of the worst reporters in history, which seems very unlikely given her stellar record, the story doesn’t really pan out.

But what disturbs me (and the authors of the original story linked above) is the newspaper’s reaction to the discovery. In the end, all they did was print the letter from the editor, Bagnall’s apology, “reprimand” her formally (without saying what that means) and suspend her column for a few weeks (even though it appeared immediately after the announcement). She retains her position on the editorial board, none of her past columns were looked into and no explanation as to what punishment she received was given.

Even though the letter from the editor and Bagnall’s apology might appear to be a case of a newspaper maintaining transparency, the issue is more convoluted than ever. There’s a million unanswered questions for both Bagnall and the paper. Sometime within the next week I will attempt to contact Bagnall regarding these questions and see if I can get an answer.

In the meantime, there seems to be a lot going on here beneath the surface and, frankly that worries me. Because if journalists have no integrity on the plagiarism issue, how can we ever hope for Webmasters to do so.

Journalists are among the role models and they should be held as such.

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