The Kansas City Star fired columnist Steve Penn for plagiarizing from press releases. “In some cases [Penn was] presenting others’ conclusions and opinions as his own and without attribution,” the Star explained.
Penn worked for the Star for 31 years. His column featured local “human interest stories,” according to the Star’s report on his firing.
The Star reported that “more than a dozen examples” of plagiarism in the past three years was found during “the normal editing process and a follow-up review.”
The newspaper’s editor, Mike Fannin, explained in the Star’s report about Penn’s firing that Penn’s actions broke the newspaper’s ethics policy. “Unfortunately, in these instances over an extended period of time, Steve made some serious errors of judgment that we concluded were clear violations of our ethics policy. Regrettably, that means we must part ways,” Fannin is quoted as saying.
An article on Maxine Virginia Byrd, which the Star listed as having included plagiarized material, appears to have been unpublished from the site. StinkyJournalism searched the Star’s website for Byrd’s name but the only result is the Star’s report on Penn’s firing.
iMediaEthics wrote to Star editor Fannin to ask if the newspaper had unpublished Fannin’s plagiarized stories, to confirm that the plagiarized stories were from the past three years and not prior, and to ask for further comment. Fannin responded that the newspaper “won’t be commenting further.”
Pitch.com commenting that Penn’s getting ideas from press releases isn’t as problematic as the lack of follow-up reporting.
“Penn’s sin isn’t using news releases to find something to write about. There are good causes and genuinely newsworthy events that need help getting word out. If a reporter hears about them because the people behind the scenes sent an e-mail pimping themselves rather than wait for word of mouth to do the job, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
“But reporters follow up on those releases with the basic journalistic work of making a few phone calls.”
iMediaEthics notes that in the UK, lifting from press releases is sometimes labeled churnalism. The term churnalism has been defined as a “news article based closely on a press release.”
As iMediaEthics has previously reported, in the UK a site called Churnalism.com, created by UK non-profit the Media Standards Trust, attempts to counter journalists’ cribbing from press releases. The site allows users to submit UK articles to the website to see if the article is heavily based on or matches with a press release.