On September 6th, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story with the headline, “Restricted Free Agent Center Morgan Frost Signs New Contract with Flyers” that discussed a new contract signing for the city’s hockey team.
However, since then, the story has been appended with a new editor’s note that reads:
“Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove a passage taken from a report by NBC10 without attribution.”
Likewise, the byline has been changed to “Staff Reports” and no longer mentions the editor that wrote it.
The reason, according to an article by Kevin Kinkead at Crossing Broad, is that the editor originally credited with the story has been fired over the incident. Kinkead goes on to say that the article that was copied is a Jordan Hall article from NBC Sports Philadelphia on the same topic.
The name of the fired reporter has not been released, though Kinkead identified him as a reporter who had been working remotely for the paper since 2021. It is unclear how much was lifted, especially since the original Hall article is not available for analysis.
The report comes amidst a difficult week for journalistic integrity at the paper. On September 11, Victor Fiorillo at City Life reported that the paper had abruptly and, without an editor’s note, removed a separate article that had been published on September 7.
That article, written by reporter Jeff Gammage, discussed a controversy surrounding plans for a new stadium for 76ers, the city’s NBA team. According to a statement from Gabriel Escobar, the paper’s editor and vice president, the article “required more context and more reporting” and was pulled down while they continue to pursue the story.
It’s a pair of unfortunate failings of journalistic integrity for the paper, in particular their sports reporting. However, they come after years of turmoil that may help explain why the long-running paper is struggling.
Years of Turmoil
In June 2019, the 190-yeard old paper made the transition to Inquirer.com, stepping away from its old address of Philly.com and fully revamping both its physical and online presence.
But that presence would come under intense fire less than a year later when the paper, in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests, ran the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.”
This prompted a swift backlash from both the community and its own reporters. Some 44 journalists of color sent an open letter to their editors and then called in “sick and tired” in protest.
The editors issued an apology, and the paper’s top editor resigned days later. The paper also worked with Poynter and other organizations to perform an audit of both its content and its staff. Recommendations were made and, a year after the initial controversy, the paper appeared to be making progress, with Poynter highlighting changes that were made. That report followed the paper’s own reporting on the steps it was taking.
However, that narrative fell apart in February 2022, when the NewsGuild of Philadelphia announced that it had filed a grievance against the paper claiming that a black journalist was being paid less than a less-experienced white counterpart for the same job.
Couple all of that with a cyberattack in May of this year and the preexisting challenges that come with running a newspaper in the digital age, and it’s easy to see that the paper has been enduring an extended period of turmoil.
In that, it seems as if some of the fundamentals of journalism integrity may have gotten lost in the shuffle.
Difficult Times, Even Bigger Problems
To be clear, it’s impossible to know why these particular issues happened. Even the most stable of publications can and do have issues and make mistakes. However, these recent incidents point to a systemic problem that needs to be addressed by the paper.
With the plagiarism case, the most immediate question is “How did this get through?” While it’s unclear if a plagiarism analysis would have caught the overlaps, it seems that the reporter was doing an aggregation piece and an editor should have at least compared the source and the new article to ensure that there were no issues.
Second, while firing the reporter for the paper is laudable, if potentially extreme depending on how severe the plagiarism was, the editor’s note doesn’t make it clear what text was at issue, which reporter was involved, doesn’t indicate that the byline was changed and doesn’t clearly identify the source material.
In short, it fails to meet even basic expectations of transparency in such a situation.
However, from a transparency standpoint, the second incident is even worse. Simply unpublishing an article without an editor’s note or formal comment is not acceptable. Unless the article was published accidentally, it is reasonable to expect that the paper would indicate that the article was removed and why. Sadly, we have no such information.
While it would be easy to blame these issues on one or two bad articles or a bad reporter, it’s clear that the system that is supposed to check behind reporters and correct these issues is not working as it should.
I think it’s safe to say that the last four years at the paper have been tumultuous. To call them challenging times is a gross understatement.
However, a newspaper like the Inquirer has an obligation to not lose sight of its journalistic integrity, and that means fostering a culture and maintaining policies that support it.
While working to improve diversity and equity within both its pages and its ranks is a laudable goal, it’s meaningless if the paper loses sight of its ethical obligations to its readers.
Fortunately, these incidents, in a vacuum, are relatively minor. Though they highlight issues within their culture and processes that they need to address, they aren’t catastrophic by themselves.
As such, they can serve as a wake-up call for the paper to take these issues seriously and put the work in to fix them before something much worse happens.
Because, while their nearly 200-year history is impressive and should be commended, it’s a history that can be erased in the blink of an eye with a single error if it is severe enough.
Here’s hoping that’s not how the paper’s story ends.