Why Wente’s actions matter and why everyone’s talking about them

In an industry that’s already trying hard to figure out how to stay relevant and profitable, a crisis of confidence is the last thing we need.

Over the last few days, I’ve been following the recent coverage of plagiarism allegations against Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente pretty avidly, especially on Twitter.

(Craig Silverman has a great summary of the whole thing here. The Globe responded tri-fold, with words from editor-in-chief John Stackhouse, media reporter Steve Ladurantaye and Wente herself.)

I’ve seen friends express they wish they could block the whole thing out, to please give Wente some leniency or avoid eviscerating her as a person, or wonder why the hell everyone cares so much.

As someone fairly new to the world of journalism-as-your-full-time-job, I have been extremely hesitant to explain why I think the wider discussion in publications like Maclean’s, Poynter or the National Post, is important. Toronto Standard managing editor Sabrina Maddeaux pointed out, the journalism industry in Canada is extremely small. I worried saying anything would put me on a blacklist for any possible writing or employment opportunities at the Globe in the future.

That being said, I think it’s fair to point out that many journalists my age are expected to produce copy (and sometimes photos) more than three times a week, at far less pay than Margaret Wente, with less opportunities for mentorship or figuring things out.

For my generation, there is immense pressure to be excellent right out of the gate, be it journalism school or internships, in order to earn our spots in newsrooms and on mastheads. We know that 100 or more people are lining up behind us fighting for our jobs and competition only gets more fierce every year.

When I was in journalism school, any instance of plagiarism meant the assignment was given a zero. Once, I reused a source for a different story, didn’t tell the professor and was deducted 10% essentially for laziness.

Recently, a Wall Street Journal intern was fired for plagiarism.

Basically, I seriously wonder if a much younger journalist would be treated the same way by public editor Sylvia Stead.

This is not about how I often disagree with Ms. Wente’s opinions. I understand that she has years of experience at the paper and has earned her position. But the way that the Globe has handled this case affects everyone in the industry. It gives extra ammunition to critics who say the mainstream media can’t be trusted. It makes every journalist who puts in extra efforts at accuracy and attribution to wonder why the hell they’re doing it. And it casts a shadow on the Globe’s reputation, despite its fantastic redesign, award-winning investigative work and the many other excellent journalists employed there.

Disclosure: I personally know many people who work for the Globe or have worked there. I’ve visited the newsroom twice. I would love to write for them. I even signed up for the Canadian Securities Course after reading a Ryerson Review of Journalism profile on John Stackhouse.

I think I watch how this case is being handled with extra interest because I’m someone who gave up a career in public relations, which is often accused of spin, lies and miscommunication. I, like many others, care about this industry in a way that extends beyond it being “just my job”. And I often defend publications when its columnists are criticized for sparking controversial discussions.

But I believe you should take full responsibility in the case of plagiarism and a public editor should be someone who responds on weekends when a crisis occurs. In our line of work, ethics and accountability don’t take a day off.

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