Plagiarism in South Portland
There’s a price to be paid in failing to know the basics of media ethics. Michael J. Tobin paid that price.
According to a story by Andrew Cullen in the Forecaster, Tobin, a reporter for the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Sentry, was fired on Feb. 24 for lifting significant material in one of his news stories from articles in the Forecaster and the Current, the other weeklies that cover the same area.
Tobin’s excuse: He didn’t know it was wrong.
“There was a lot I didn't know as a first-time reporter,” Tobin, who was hired last September, told the Forecaster. “I unknowingly made a mistake, and I'm sorry, and I lost my job because of it.”
That may be difficult for any reporter with more than about twenty minutes experience to believe, but it just might be true. After all, Tobin published his piece, complete with the material he swiped from his competition, in a publication they were likely to see. So, if he knew it was wrong, he would also have had to know there was a strong chance he’d get caught.
Even so, it wasn’t a rival that exposed him. Cullen’s story says the plagiarism was discovered by an official at South Portland City Hall, who wondered how Tobin was getting information on meetings he didn’t attend.
The Sentry ran an unbylined apology to both the Forecaster and its readers in this week’s issue (PDF warning), but didn’t mention the Current. The piece called the incident a “serious matter” and a “breach of trust.” It didn’t mention Tobin by name, but did say the offender had been dismissed.
The Sentry referred only to a single story, but Current managing editor Ben Bragdon said he had notified the paper of an additional problem with a Feb. 17 story by Tobin headlined “Businesses see parking plan as a problem,” which drew heavily from earlier articles in the Current and the Forecaster.
“We informed the Sentry of the second story earlier this week and expected they would take responsibility,” Bragdon said in an email. “They have not.”
(Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in some papers published by the Current’s owner.)
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.