Yesterday, NBC News published a note to their readers that said they had detected 11 articles written by one of their reporters that “did not meet our standards for original material.”
Specifically, the note said that the reporter in question had copied passages that were “not central to the stories” and instead represented background or supplemental material.
Though the note doesn’t name the reporter involved, all eleven of the stories were written by Teaganne Finn and were published in a five-month period between September 2021 and February 2022. Finn had started with NBC in June 2021, following her previous job at Bloomberg.
The articles remain online, but have been appended with an editor’s note and the passage(s) involved removed. The editor’s note is similar for each article, the only change being to highlight the specific elements that were copied. For example, the editor’s note on this article reads:
NBC News has determined that a section about the group Bridge to Democracy in an earlier version of this article was not properly attributed to its original source and did not meet our standards for original material. The section has been removed from the article.
According to NBC News, they discovered the plagiarism after an internal editorial review of a story prompted a larger investigation. NBC News also confirmed that Finn is no longer working with them.
A report by the New York Post adds that NBC staffers learned about the incident via a meeting with Catherine Kim, NBC’s senior vice president of global digital news. There, she highlighted the importance of maintaining trust both with each other and the public and referred to plagiarism as a “bright line” that they cannot cross.
This brings an end to the story, but it raises several key questions, including “How could NBC have avoided this?” and “Could they have handled it better?’
NBC’s Handling of the Case
NBC’s handling of the case was, overall, excellent. They detected the plagiarism through an internal review process, they immediately investigated and identified other works with issues, then publicly identified those works and corrected them.
Though NBC didn’t directly share the name of the reporter at issue, it also didn’t hide it. Since the original articles are still up and linked in the note to readers, it is trivial to figure out who the subject is.
It also appears that NBC parted ways with Finn quickly. Though it’s unclear if she was fired, resigned or otherwise left on her own accord, the fact is that she is no longer with the company.
This is how companies should be handling plagiarism scandals. The only real question that can be asked is why did it take so long for NBC to spot the issue? Five months and eleven articles isn’t a tremendous amount of time, but, if this had been caught sooner, the articles may have never been published and Finn might still have a job at NBC.
By missing the first eleven problematic articles, they deepened the wound, both for themselves and Finn. However, when they did detect the issue, they handled the issue almost perfectly, being thorough, transparent and swift in their actions.
So, while NBC should be looking at ways to plug the gaps in their plagiarism detection, they can still take comfort in knowing that the actual handling of the case, at least as I understand it, was quite good.
What’s Next for Finn
This raises the question of what is next for Finn?
That is difficult to guess because the impact of plagiarism scandals varies wildly from journalist to journalist.
Jayson Blair and Jonah Lehrer are two examples of high-profile plagiarists whose careers were effectively ended by their scandal. However, in both of their cases, their downfalls were extremely big news, capturing headlines all over the world. In Finn’s case, that appears to be less true, with most coverage being local to the New York area.
However, she’s also not a Benny Johnson figure, a reporter whose popularity hinges more on his political ideology than his reporting. Because of this, Johnson was able to repeatedly land on his feet despite several journalism ethics scandals, including plagiarism.
Instead, a more direct analogue may be the Marie-Louise Gumuchian scandal from 2014. Gumuchian was fired from CNN after it discovered some 50 stories of hers contained 128 instances of plagiarism.
Though the incident was a definite setback in her career, she was able to find other work and has been writing consistently for Reuters since January 2021. Her latest article was published just four days ago.
She has been able to turn her career and reputation around following the incident, hopefully learning from it and doing much better work today.
Plagiarism is not the career death penalty it once was. However, it’s far from being a positive and, outside those that have their own audience that isn’t concerned with journalism ethics, it is still a major career setback.
Simply put, here’s hoping that both NBC and Finn learn from this ordeal and improve their work in the future.
NBC is going to take a lot of criticism. Any time plagiarism is discovered at a publication, those that oppose it, especially if the opposition is political, will jump on it as further evidence that it’s not to be trusted.
However, NBC’s handling of the case was, overall, excellent. While better internal processes can and should have caught the issue sooner, their handling after the discovery was on point.
As for Finn, her career will definitely suffer a setback but, as we’ve seen before, others have recovered and gone on to do excellent work elsewhere. If she can learn and grow from this, she should be able to put it behind her.
While it’s a sad story, it’s not quite the tragedy we’ve seen elsewhere. This story could have been so much worse for everyone involved.