The Globe and Mail has taken steps to rectify its much-criticized initial response to plagiarism allegations against a senior columnist.
Late Monday, the paper's editor-in-chief John Stackhouse published a memo stating he had taken unspecified disciplinary action against controversial columnist Margaret Wente, and pledged to change the way the publication's public editor deals with future complaints.
Wente, who has been writing for the Globe since 1992 and is a past winner of a National Newspaper Award, became the centre of an online firestorm last week, after a critical blog post by Ottawa University visual art professor Carol Wainio. On her Media Culpa blog, Wainio documented similarities between a 2009 op-ed by Wente about African agriculture and seven other texts, including stories in the Ottawa Citizen, Newsweek, and New York Times.
Sylvia Stead, the Globe's public editor, issued a statement Friday aimed at putting the controversy to rest, but which ultimately only fanned the flames. It was slammed by many readers as inadequate and dismissive, particularly because it appeared to ignore the more serious charges against Wente. An online-only correction to Wente's column, addressing the more minor accusations, was issued.
Faced with a growing online outcry, Monday night the Globe published a statement by Stackhouse that said he had spoken with Wente and reprimanded her.
"Even in the spirit of column writing, which allows for some latitude in attribution and expression, this work was not in accordance with our code of conduct, and is unacceptable," Stackhouse wrote. Details of the reprimand were not disclosed, however.
Wente responded herself in an column for the paper's Tuesday edition, in which she said she was "far from perfect" and conceded copying a sentence nearly verbatim from a 2008 article by Dan Gardner in the Ottawa Citizen, although she claimed she did so inadvertently. That admission was a reversal from Stead's initial response, in which Wente was described as saying she didn't believe she had read Gardner's story.
But while apologizing for being "extremely careless," Wente denied being a "serial plagiarist."
"I'm sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences," Wente wrote. "But I'm also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people's character and reputation seem to have become the norm."
Wente will continue writing her column, which appears three times a week.
For some however, the Globe's response likely won't have gone far enough.
In an interview before the Globe's announcement Monday, John Miller, a former chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism and senior newsroom editor for the Toronto Star until 1986, said that the paper should suspend Wente pending a full investigation of her work by an outside expert. He believes that the problem could extend beyond a single article, because Wainio has pointed out similarities between Wente's work and other publications in the past.
"Plagiarism, and in this case, supposedly repeated plagiarism by the most celebrated columnist in the paper, is very, very serious," Miller said.
Miller also questions whether Stead, who has held several editorial positions at the Globe since joining the paper in 1975, could reasonably be expected to investigate complaints of journalistic impropriety when she has deep roots, including personal relationships, at the publication.
"That's the culture she knows, and she's very protective of it, as you'd expect," Miller said. "You can't just change chairs and change job titles and expect the person to be a representative of the reader."
In his memo, Stackhouse said from now on Stead will report solely to the paper's publisher, not its editor-in-chief, to ensure she is "fully autonomous from the newsroom."
But the Globe isn't the only publication coming under fire for how it has handled "Wentegate." Some veteran journalism experts believe the scandal has shed light on the Canadian media's reluctance to report on allegations made against one of their own, and raised concerns about the increased pressure and eroded standards that risk becoming the norm for journalism in the digital age.
Although social media was awash with debate about Wainio's post last week, it took several days for the story to find its way into mainstream outlets like Maclean's and the National Post. Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, says this is evidence that Canadian journalists are much too "cozy" with one another.
"There's a kind of a solidarity among journalists," Dvorkin says. "Sort of like musk ox; we put our butts together and point the horns outward."
Dvorkin, who also teaches journalism at University of Toronto Scarborough, speculates that other newspapers have been wary of covering Wente's alleged improprieties lest their own publications be put under increased scrutiny.
As online media has eclipsed print journalism, Dvorkin says, writers at all Canadian publications are under unprecedented pressure and have arguably become more prone to resorting to plagiarism. Not only are deadlines tighter, but writers are often asked to take on multiple tasks, such as filing for both online and print formats, managing Twitter and Facebook accounts, and editing videos.
"At a time when jobs appear scarce and getting scarcer, productivity becomes the way many journalists are being judged," Dvorkin says. "So the management pressure on journalists to perform at a high level and continue to perform at that level is pretty intense."
Cutting corners is bound to become tempting, and the Globe's competitors may fear they have a few skeletons in their own closets, Dvorkin says.
The stakes, for both writers and news outlets, are high. At the same time the digital age has made cutting and pasting other writers' work easier and more seductive, online search tools now ensure plagiarists are only a click or two away from being exposed.
"Now everything is more transparent," says Dvorkin, "and as I tell my students at U of T, you can't hide anywhere. You shouldn't want to hide anywhere."