The Washington Post admitted that one of its freelancers plagiarized from a documentary for a Post Travel section story on a Slovakian Andy Warhol museum.
The admission was made in Washington Post public editor Patrick Pexton’s May 27 column. The Post also appended an editor’s note to the travel story explaining the plagiarism and apologizing for the ethical “lapses” to both the documentary filmmaker and Post readers.
Freelancer Robert Rigney lifted quotes and “scenes” from the documentary Absolut Warhola for his April 15 story for the Post, according to Pexton. Absolut Warhola is a 2001-released documentary by Stanislaw Mucha, according to IMDB.
According to Pexton, a “sharp-eyed Post reader” spotted the plagiarism. Pexton explained that the freelancer, Rigney, “when confronted,” admitted not only that he “‘nicked’ some of the scenes and quotes from the documentary,” but also that some of the information in the article came from “several trips, some dating back 10 years, to the Warhol museum.”
Rigney’s story was titled “Visiting the Andy Warhol museum – in Slovakia.”
The Post won’t use Rigney’s work anymore and didn’t pay him for his story, Pexton added. According to Pexton, Rigney has written for Christian Science Monitor and, according to Rigney’s story, he is based in Berlin.
No “Army of Fact-Checkers”
Pexton also admitted that the Post “does not have an army of fact-checkers” and can’t verify each fact in travel stories. As a result, Pexton lamented that “I feel sure that this will happen again,” and weaken the Post’s credibility.
Pexton reported that the Post’s travel section editor, Joe Yonan, commented on how limited resources limit the newspaper’s fact checking:
“We can be ever-vigilant and spot-check what we can, but I’m afraid that if a writer is intent on plagiarizing or otherwise violating basic journalistic practices, given our resources it will indeed be difficult to always catch it.”
Attached to the story is an “editor’s note” that seems to have been added May 20 (when the last update on the story was made) explaining that the article “included material that was taken without attribution from a documentary film.” The editor’s note added that Rigney’s reporting “was based on several journeys” and not on one recent, “single trip.”
It appears that “sharp-eyed reader” took to the comments section to notify the Post. Commenter “Richko” wrote on May 20, the day of the last update, the following comment, in part:
“The portion of this article describing the author’s supposed visit to Mikova, I believe, is complete BS — the author either did not go there or nothing of interest took place during the visit. His entire supposed encounter with Michal Varchola — and his mother, Warhol’s aunt — is repeated scene-for-scene, word-for-word from the film Absolut Warhola (2001, Poland), down to the very repetition of the same awkward English subtitles….”
“Richko” added that “I am not convinced the author has ever set foot in northeastern Slovakia, much less ever met in person any of the named individuals in this piece. This article is a disgrace.”‘
Another reader, “tourist011,” criticized the Post for its lack of fact checking. “Tourist011” commented that it appears the Post’s update “was the direct and sole result of Richko’s comment.”
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“Tourist011” went on:
“The Post never initiated its own basic fact-checking of this freelancer’s work before publication or after the fact. Just a couple phone calls or emails — ‘Did this reporter talk to you? When’ and ‘Is this stuff on display in your museum?’ — would have kept the egg off the Post’s face. “
And, another commenter, “KJ2011,” criticized the Post for not only not fact checking but also for the article’s negative depiction of Slovakia. That reader wrote, in part:
“In addition to these inaccuracies and the surprising lack of journalistic integrity demonstrated by this contributor to the Post, it is disappointing that more effort isn’t being made to set the record straight about eastern Slovakia.
“Despite admitting to serious errors, the correction still doesn’t address the fact that this article portrayed eastern Slovakia in a very negative light. It would be a shame if folks made decisions about traveling to eastern Slovakia based on this misinformation. I have actually traveled to eastern Slovakia (although not to the Andy Warhol museum), and the trip was amazing. Eastern Slovakia was one of the most interesting and beautiful places I have visited.
“It’s a shame that this poor reporting may end up having such a negative impact on an entire region of a country. I definitely expect more from the Post.”
Rigney’s Previous Post Stories
The Post also “fact-checked, as best as they could” the other two stories Rigney has written for the Post, Pexton reported. Both stories, according to a search of the Post’s website, were published in December 2010 in both print and online editions of the Post.
According to Pexton, one of the stories “checked out” but the other one “was almost impossible to verify” because it was a “first-person account of his walking tours.” The story on the walking tours, published in the Dec. 5 print edition, carries an online correction noting that a caption for “earlier versions” of the report mis-reported the century in which Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic worked.
WashPost’s Sari Horwitz Suspension for Plagiarism to End Soon?
In March, the Post suspended staff reporter Sari Horwitz for three months after she was caught plagiarizing from the Arizona Republic. Two of her stories on the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona earlier this year were plagiarized, according to the Post’s report on Horwitz’s suspension. The suspension was announced March 16, so StinkyJournalism notes we can expect to see Horwitz’s byline again soon.
The suspension seemed to be a light punishment for one of journalism’s grave ethical crimes, StinkyJournalism noted.
iMediaEthics is writing to the Post to verify that Horwitz will be back at the Post in the coming weeks. We will update with any response.
iMediaEthics has written to Rigney for comment and will update with any response.
UPDATE: 05/29/2011 4:09 PM EST: Corrected spelling of plagiarized in headline.
UPDATE: 06/16/2011 1:54 PM EST: See iMediaEthics’ follow-up on this story here.