Plagiarism and KUNM
April 24, 2014
Plagiarism is one of the greatest ethical breaches that a journalist can commit.
Many journalists do not survive when an accusation of plagiarism is confirmed and are forced to resign or quit. Others are given a second chance.
But most news organizations also understand that when allegations of plagiarism are confirmed, the news organizations should be transparent as to what was found and what actions were taken.
In the case of KUNM, the public radio station housed at the University of New Mexico, allegations of plagiarism were evidently confirmed, and the journalist who did the cutting and pasting was disciplined. But KUNM never acknowledged to the public what happened until outside journalists began reporting on the controversy.
Last month, Joey Peters, a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter, forwarded me an email sent out by former KUNM reporter Tristan Ahtone, who quit the station after refusing to take part in ethics training run by the Poynter Institute in light of the plagiarism allegations.
Here is that email from Mr. Ahtone to his KUNM colleagues:
I refuse to take part in this ethics training course. It's clear that KUNM will not enforce the journalism values that will be reinforced or taught anyway, and will continue to cover up the stations own involvement with ongoing ethics violations.
I am deeply concerned that KUNM has refused to deal with clear ethical violations within its newsroom in any transparent way out of indifference or possibly to protect management from scrutiny and derail the already fraught process of selecting a news director.
Here is the timeline of my involvement with ongoing ethics violations in the newsroom, and all corresponding examples are attached to this email:
1. I brought evidence of plagiarism to Tristan Clum Friday, April 5th, 2013. The story was on the release on new federal rules for navigators. Audio, script and original sources plagiarized for publication have been attached. I would estimate that approximately 80% of the story was copy and pasted from other sources I was told by Mr. Clum that the situation would be addressed. It's unclear if the story was vetted by an editor before air.
2. On November 21st, 2013, I brought evidence of plagiarism to Richard Towne. The story was on whooping cough cases in New Mexico. Mr. Towne immediately asked for additional documentation and put Mr. Clum in touch with me so they could be provided. The story in question was published by KUNM as well as media partner The Fronteras Desk. In both cases, text was copied and pasted so different versions could be produced. I would estimate about 20% of each story was plagiarized. Since then, corrections have been printed for improper citation. An additional correction was printed due the reporter's incorrect assertion that babies could be protected from the disease by simply wrapping them in blankets. The editor on the story was Elaine Baumgartel.
3. On December 4th, 2013, I asked for follow up on the situation and how KUNM would deal with the issue. I was told the problem was a personnel issue and would not be addressed. To this day, the reporter is still producing work for KUNM.
4. On December 23rd, 2013, I discovered a third instance of plagiarism in a story on teen pregnancy rates. The piece was published on KUNM's website and on media partner New Mexico In Depths website. I did not report the finding as there was nobody left to bring my concerns to that would act. Elaine Baumgartel was the editor on the story.
5. On January 9th, 2014, I alerted KUNM management as well as UNM HR to a hostile work environment. The reporter in question made it very clear that she did not like that I had reported her to supervisors, and I asked for relief and documentation of the issue. No documentation was ever provided, the situation continues.
6. On January 10th, 2014, I was told by Elaine Baumgartel that one option available to me to deal with a hostile work environment would be to go to conflict resolution.
7. As of February 3rd, all newsroom employees are now required to complete five hours of journalism ethics training by Monday February 10th. The reason given for this training is "to review journalism ethics and basic principles."
KUNM has continued to ignore requests for transparency on this, and has allowed the reporter to continue producing work for air and web. The editor responsible for allowing these violations remains Interim News Director and has yet to address her role in the editing process of the above mentioned pieces.
Journalism matters. Truth matters. Transparency matters. However, our ability to seek truth and report it is tainted because we have refused to hold our own reporters accountable, as well as managers that should be taking the situation seriously. If such brash plagiarism has been allowed in our reporting, is it not logical to question the veracity of other stories that have been published? If questions can be cast on an entire body of work, is it logical to continue allowing more stories to be added to that body?
I refuse to take part in any ethical training available to KUNM or UNM employees as it serves merely as the Potemkin Village to bolster this stations attempt at credibility. I will continue to refuse until these issues - which affect our ability to do our jobs, fund-raise and be a reliable community resource - are addressed.
In his request for me to look into this, Mr. Peters provided me with the links to two of the stories (Whooping Cough and Teen Pregnancy) that contained plagiarized material. He said the third story on Obamacare that contained the most egregious plagiarism example isn't posted online. Mr. Peters then asked me if KUNM is properly disclosing these plagiarism examples to its readers.
Both now contain clarifications at the bottom of the story.
I sent requests for comment to both Deborah Martinez, the author of the articles in question and Elaine Baumgartel, KUNM's interim news director.
Ms. Martinez wrote back to say:
I'm responding to your query so as to put this behind me. I've earned four Associated Press awards over my decades-long broadcast career, producing hundreds of stories with the aim of telling the truth. I made a mistake and was disciplined for it and KUNM and I now move forward with the same goal of informing the public in an open and honest way about news that affects them.
She added that the ethics training was scheduled at her request.
News director Baumgartel did not respond to my inquiry. Instead she passed it along to the station's general manager, Richard Towne:
Here is his response:
KUNM is licensed to the University of New Mexico (UNM), an entity of state. If and when KUNM undertakes progressive disciplinary action with an employee, our proposed actions are reviewed and approved by UNM's Human Resources department.
UNM's HR department reviews each disciplinary action with an eye toward appropriate level of progressive discipline and for consistent application of HR standards across campus. In some instances, the UNM HR response time is relatively quick. In other instances, the response time can be frustratingly slow.
If UNM HR does not agree with a progressive disciplinary action proposed by KUNM, it can change the action. For example, a proposal by KUNM to suspend an employee might be reduced by UNM HR to a written or oral warning.
UNM HR policy maintains that disciplinary actions are confidential on a "need to know" basis. While such policy respects the privacy of the individual, it prevents supervisors from disclosing the matter to colleagues. This was articulated to Mr. Ahtone by Ms. Baumgartel, and later by her supervisor Program Director Clum, and later by me.
Mr. Ahtone's refusal to follow his supervisor's direction and take KUNM's Ethics Training was his decision. I can't really speak to his reason but if he attributes this to our inability to manage staff, his basis is uninformed.
Beside Mr. Ahtone, KUNM has recently received a resignation note from a freelance (on-call) Reporter who took a new job in public media in Arizona. We also had a resignation from a half-time grant-funded project support staff person who was not directly assigned to the News Department. Neither person wrote about the News Department in their letters of resignation.
In an interview with me, Mr. Ahtone said he was most upset by the failure of those at KUNM to acknowledge and discuss the plagiarism incidents particularly since two of the stories were shared with the station's media partners.
"The big problem is that I just felt like the newsroom needed to talk about this," he said. "Everybody needs ethics training, but I wanted someone to discuss what was going on. And if they knew about this in November, why did they take so long to run the correction."
While Mr. Towne said that no one else cited the plagiarism incidents in their letters of resignation, Lianne Adams, who was the part-time coordinator for the Poverty and Public Health programming, said she resigned on April 4.
"The plagiarism allegations played a part in my resignation, as part of a larger issue of management at the station," she said. "I support Tristan Ahtone's position."
Asked to respond to Mr. Towne's assertions about how the situation at KUNM played out, Mr. Ahtone said that he is not particularly interested in getting into a feud with KUNM.
"Clearly we disagree on how this issue was reported to supervisors, what we find ethically acceptable and how we define accountability," Mr. Ahtone said. "However, I would prefer to move on with as little friction as possible."
Last week, Mr. Peters wrote a piece in the Santa Fe Reporter about the plagiarism allegations. His report can be found here:
Following that article, Ms. Baumgartel posted a response on the KUNM website.
Following the publication of that article, KUNM responded publicly on its website with an article by news director Baumgartel.
It pains me for a newsroom to hide behind the idea that it cannot discuss anything it did because of university policies that protect the confidentiality of employees and personnel issues.
KUNM should have disclosed to the public immediately when it discovered that it had a plagiarism problem. If the station was concerned that it not violate the university's personnel policies then it should have announced what happened without naming the reporter. (Though obviously anyone with halfway decent reporting skills could figure out who it was that committed the ethical infractions since reporters do have bylines on stories).
The credibility of a news organization rests on its ability to be transparent and own up to its mistakes. It should not have to wait for outside forces to disclose first.
Contact the CPB Ombudsman
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
401 Ninth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
The views expressed in these reports are solely those of the author and are not to be regarded as those of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, its board of directors, officers, or employees.