The Eighth CommandmentWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Toledo giveth, and Toledo taketh away.
Last December, a man phoned Toledo Free Press and left a message on my voicemail. He expressed concern that one of our contributors was taking credit for material he was not writing. The caller left his name and phone number, and during our subsequent conversation, directed me to source material that was intended for dissemination — with proper attribution. Financial adviser Troy Neff subscribed and paid for that material, but turned it in as his own work, under his own name. Upon verifying this with Neff, Toledo Free Press immediately made a public statement and dropped Neff’s weekly column.
The caller who alerted us to this did so out of respect for Toledo Free Press’ efforts to operate a clean and transparent newspaper. There was no “gotcha” attitude or glee in seeing Neff take a public hit.
A person with opposite motivations posted a notice on SwampBubbles May 22 that accused an opinion column by former Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber, “A History of Memorial Day,” of plagiarizing several lines. I checked the post, saw there was cause for concern, contacted Thurber and told her that pending an investigation, I intended to pull that column from the Toledo Free Press Web site and suspend her contributions.
Before an investigation could be launched, Thurber immediately e-mailed a resignation notice, which read in part, “My Toledo Free Press column, ‘The History of Memorial Day,’ was a compilation of various facts and information from various sources. Because of the numerous sources of the same specific facts and similar information, I did not include in the article the various attributions as I should have. For that, I apologize.
“Alternatively, in order to avoid any misconceptions, I could have stated at the start of the article that the facts and information which followed were a compilation from multiple resources. I’m sorry for not making that clear. I have the training and experience to know better and make no excuse for this error.”
Thurber’s column is a popular destination for Toledo Free Press readers, in print and online. She has been a regular contributor since early 2006, and there is no columnist in this market writing the kind of governmental watchdog criticism at which she excels.
On top of her value to our publication and our community, I like Maggie Thurber. She has taken some deserved public lumps but not gone into hiding, as her more vocal critics would prefer. She remains a strong and influential voice on radio and in the blogosphere, and it is my fervent hope that she continues writing about our dysfunctional local government.
She just won’t be doing it on these pages.
I am not a legal expert on plagiarism, but at this publication, I have the responsibility of defining these matters. Thurber failed to cite a source, and in the parameters I have set, that’s a one-strike offense. Mistake, oversight or sloppiness, it is a disservice to readers and will not be tolerated. Resignation accepted.
Toledo Free Press paid for an audit of its content going back 24 months, checking a sampling of each contributor’s work. That investigation revealed two more instances — Dec. 21, 2007 and Dec. 19, 2008 — in which Thurber failed to cite a source. Those articles have been amended online.
We do not blame the anonymous messenger for the message; the offense is greater than the motives behind the discovery process. I may disdain the anonymous sniping that colors local blogs, but I recognize that we serve and are beholden to those people as much as we are our supporters — maybe more so, as their criticism and contempt drives our quest to be that much more accountable and transparent.
Nor do we set our standards by the low and getting lower all the time shoddiness of other local print publications. Print products in this market are often allowed to slide by with ethical standards too low to register on any professional scale, but that has never and will never define who we are and how we serve you.
Moving forward, we are taking a number of steps to protect our publication and its audience from such lapses.
We are now running every Toledo Free Press submission through a Web site filter designed to spot strings of text that already exist.
We are working with the University of Toledo to plan a workshop for all new and future Toledo Free Press contributors to review the rules of attribution. As a prelude, I have personally spoken with all current contributors and fervently reminded them that no text from any Web site, news release, published article, e-mail or Chinese fortune cookie may be printed without proper attribution.
Lastly, I am reaching out to our readership with this promise: From this issue forward, if you spot an instance in which a Toledo Free Press contributor has used another writer’s work without proper attribution, and you are the first to notify us, we will make a cash donation to the charity of your choice. We will ask that you provide your name, occupation and e-mail or phone number for our records, along with evidence of the offending material and its original source.
All we ask of you is what we hope you demand of us: honor, accuracy, accountability and the integrity to face each other, not behind screen names or anonymous writings — but openly, with respect and the common goal of creating a constructive dialogue.
Because we know you giveth, and you taketh away.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.