Caught “Accidentally” Stealing
The story of a small-town reporter, fired for plagiarism, who got his job back
By Caroline Zaayer
Zaayer is a former AJR editorial assistant.
A tale of plagiarism at a small Pennsylvania newspaper nearly ended like those at its more famous counterparts, with the dismissal and journalistic ruin of the plagiarist. But this tale had a twist: The plagiarist got his job back.
An outside arbitrator decided newsroom management at the Times Herald in Norristown, a Philadelphia suburb, must share blame for the writer's violation.
Gary Puleo, 47, a longtime feature writer at the Times Herald, was fired in the summer of 2003 after the paper discovered one of his stories contained about 12 paragraphs of unattributed material from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But Puleo filed a grievance with the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. During 14 months of negotiations, the Guild and the Times Herald, which has a daily circulation of about 17,000, agreed to an arbitration hearing.
The paper argued that Puleo's firing was warranted because he violated one of journalism's most fundamental rules. But the arbitrator decided that although Puleo's actions did constitute plagiarism, he was not solely responsible for what happened. The newsroom, he found, had provided inadequate guidelines, education and training on attribution and Internet sourcing.
Puleo was reinstated with no loss to seniority or benefits and given back-pay minus 90 days as punishment for his misconduct. He returned to work in September.
Puleo tells AJR he did not understand that what he had done was plagiarism until the Guild began preparing for the arbitration. He says he never received training in how to attribute information from the Internet. "I didn't have any journalism training," he says. "I majored in English." Puleo adds he's now extremely careful with proper sourcing, even attributing information to press releases. "Nobody ever did that" before at the Times Herald, he says.
The paper's editor, Stan Huskey, declined to comment. Arbitrator Daniel F. Brent of the American Arbitration Association, which handles disputes for a wide range of labor issues, found Times Herald editors had long condoned cutting and pasting certain background information without attribution. Testimony through the two-day hearing showed that Times Herald reporters often used material from press releases, Web sites and fellow Times Herald reporters' stories word for word without attribution.
Valerie Newitt, the Guild's unit chair and a Times Herald copy editor, says she initially investigated the situation and decided Puleo had plagiarized unintentionally.
Puleo had written soft feature stories for nearly 15 years, including human-interest pieces on topics ranging from animal shelters to car shows. Melissa Nelson, the Guild's local representative, says he was "out of his depth" when he was told to cover a hard-news story, which Puleo describes to AJR as his first such assignment.
An AJR search of the Times Herald's online archives, however, turned up several hard-news articles under Puleo's byline, including fire and robbery stories. The Guild's legal brief says Puleo had never covered a "breaking news story of any kind." It says he claimed his stories since 2001 were 95 percent to 99 percent features; his city editor put Puleo's ratio at 90 percent features to 10 percent news.
The "hard-news" story that led to his dismissal: a man-on-the-street article about the capture of a suspected terrorist in Norristown. Nelson says Puleo's editors told him to collect background information from the Internet and cut and paste pieces of the Times Herald's story from the previous day.
Puleo was not Internet savvy and had problems with his computer that day, Nelson says. He went to several Web sites, picking up what he thought were just "dry background facts," something he had been instructed to do in the past. Nelson says much of Puleo's original reporting in the story was removed during the editing process, and unbeknownst to him, the final version consisted largely of cut-and-pasted information that turned out to be from the Inquirer.
Less than a week after publication, Editor Huskey sent Puleo a copy of an e-mail he had received from an Inquirer editor saying that Puleo's June 29 story plagiarized the Inquirer. The e-mail included a copy of the story with approximately 12 paragraphs in bold to indicate areas of plagiarism, according to the Guild's legal brief.
But even then, Puleo says, he "still didn't think" he had plagiarized because "I knew I didn't go to the Inquirer Web site." The arbitrator decided the information from the Inquirer story "more likely than not" was lifted from another site.
David Nelson, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism (no relation to the Guild's Nelson), testified as an expert witness for the paper during the arbitration. His testimony emphasized how important reporting and attribution are to a newspaper's credibility.
"There is no winner here," he says. "Not the newspaper. Not the reporter. Not the reader. And certainly not the Philadelphia Inquirer, where the material in question originally was published. One hopes that a lesson was learned."
Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, says newsroom standards apparently were slack and editors should have questioned where Puleo got his information.
"The arbitrator's decision is probably right," Wasserman says, adding that "being suspended for three months without pay is pretty tough" for a violation that others in the newsroom also were committing.
Newitt, who has known and worked with Puleo for many years, says his firing troubled her because he was an excellent writer with a clean record who was never given a chance to tell management his side of the story. "He's always been such a consistently appreciated, well-disciplined person and employee," she says. "This just didn't jibe with who he is."
She thinks "sometimes cases like this are considered to be black and white." But in this instance, at least, she saw nuances. She's realized how little education the news staff received in proper attribution and jokes that "we're serial plagiarizers" because "we never knew certain things were plagiarism. We did it innocently without intent."
The newsroom did have a code of ethics that prohibited plagiarism, but it needed elaboration, especially regarding electronic sources, arbitrator Brent found.
Newitt says she is unaware of any plans for training at the Times Herald, but the new publisher, who was not with the paper during the Puleo contretemps, has told her it's something she wants to study. The Guild's Nelson has heard that an ethics policy is under discussion at the corporate level. The paper's owner is the Journal Register Co., which owns 27 daily papers and hundreds of small nondaily publications in the Midwest and Northeast. Calls to the publisher, Shelley Meenan, and to the corporate offices for comment were not returned.
Puleo was given a standing ovation, a cake and flowers from the news staff the day he came back to the paper. He says he probably wouldn't have stayed in newspapers if the arbitrator's decision had been different. "I love this newspaper so much because I grew up here – this is my hometown paper," he says. "It wasn't just a job. I probably wouldn't have gone so far with" the arbitration "if it had been just a job."
Puleo adds: "I've never gone through anything quite as emotionally traumatic." ###