Have you noticed the proliferation of media “partnerships” in San Diego lately? Voiceofsandiego.org partners with KNSD 7/39. The Union-Tribune partners with KGTV 10 News. Fledgling website San Diego News Network (SDNN.com) partners with whomever will partner with it. It certainly makes sense: TV stations get the free work from daily reporters, and their partners get video to augment their online content. In a time when newsrooms are shriveling, there's strength in collaboration and content-sharing.
But at least in the case of SDNN and San Diego 6 XETV (The CW), it's also an opportunity to multiply the effects of egregious lapses in journalism ethics.
A few weeks ago, CityBeat's Kelly Davis broke a story on the paper's blog about Rob Hagey Productions, the company that produces Street Scene, being in serious debt to its creditors. Davis contacted Hagey, who e-mailed back, acknowledging that, indeed, his company is “insolvent” and vowing that he was finished with the annual music event. It wasn't earth-shattering investigative work or anything. After all, CityBeat is one of Hagey's creditors; we received a letter saying he couldn't pay his bills. Davis simply got in contact with him and scored a heartfelt quote.
But then we saw the story on SDNN, with a quote from Hagey that was strikingly similar to the one Davis got. The story, written by Antonio Castelan of San Diego 6, made no mention of CityBeat. Accompanying the piece was the online version of San Diego 6's broadcast of the story, which included much more of the e-mail Hagey sent to Davis, both read by Castelan and splashed across the screen. Again, no mention of CityBeat as the source of the information.
We figured it was possible that Hagey simply gave Castelan the same quote he gave us, and our arts editor, Seth Combs, asked SDNN and San Diego 6 about it. All we got from SDNN editor William Yelles was that it wasn't their story; they just post the work of their partners—apparently with no regard for content—and he took no responsibility for it. San Diego 6 assignment editor Pasha Nosrat promised to look into the matter.
Yelles' position, of course, is indefensible. Plagiarism is theft, and SDNN acted as the fence. Let's say your ride was stolen and a week later, you spot it sitting in a lot at a used-car dealership. You demand it back, but the dealership tells you to take it up with the car thief; they aren't culpable. Wrong. It's their responsibility to check the title.
San Diego 6 has since altered its original story to say that CityBeat was the source of the Hagey e-mail. It's customary to tell readers that the original story's been corrected, but there was no such admission. On Monday, Combs asked SDNN to correct its version and San Diego 6 to issue a correction during a broadcast. On Tuesday, SDNN corrected its version, identifying CityBeat as the source of the e-mail language. Neither of the corrections identify CityBeat as the source of the letter Hagey's creditors received from San Diego Credit Association, which were the basis for the story.
We considered the possibility that Castelan simply doesn't know what he's doing. But on its website, San Diego 6 touts him as an award-winning journalist who's worked at four stations in Texas and Colorado, including in the large city of San Antonio. So, given his experience, how can we not consider this an act of plagiarism? The guy passed off Davis' work as his own.
Yes, there is a self-serving aspect to this editorial. CityBeat was harmed. If Castelan had acted ethically, San Diego 6 viewers and readers and SDNN readers would have known that the story was based on the work of CityBeat, and it's possible that we would have gained more readers as a result. Already, that post received the most traffic on our blog in the last 30 days. More readers means more advertisers. More advertisers means more money to do more journalism.
But this is also a cautionary tale for those organizations that partner up: Know who you're bedding down with. And realize that you not only reap the benefits of the partnership; you also take on the responsibility of making sure that your new friend's work meets whatever your professional and ethical standards might be.
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