Getting granular with NPR’s culture of timidity

NPR would not call it plagiarism when Melania Trump's speech to the Republican convention took passages from Michelle Obama. But there was a revealing moment when its people defended this policy online.

24 Jul 2016 8:03 pm 36 Comments


Hey, readers! This will take some explanation but if you bear with me, I promise: by the time you get to point 9 it will be worth it.

1. On the morning after Melania Trump’s speech, Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott published this note about NPR’s policy. The message: we can’t call it plagiarism unless it’s intentional.

On The Definition Of Plagiarism

Because it’s in the news today, here’s a reminder about how we have defined the word “plagiarism”:

“Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.”

Note the word “intentionally.”

We can talk about phrases that are “word-for-word” or that “mirror each other.” It’s fine to say there’s a “plagiarism issue” or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized. But we don’t know at this time whether anything was done “intentionally.” So don’t declare that there’s been some plagiarism.

2. You can see the NPR policy at work in the many reports it prepared about the Melania Trump speech. They all avoided the word “plagiarized.”

“Melania Trump’s Monday Speech Mirrors Michelle Obama’s…” (Link.) “…language in Melania Trump’s Monday night convention speech that was near-identical to a similar speech Michelle Obama delivered in 2008.” (Link.) “Melania Trump Echoes Michelle Obama.” (Link.)

Even after Trump staffer Meredith McIver took responsibility for using Michelle Obama’s words without credit, NPR would not call it plagiarism. (Link) Why? Because she didn’t mean it.

3. I came across Memmott’s note because I was mentioned on Twitter by an NPR reporter, Sarah McCammon, as she was being taken to task by a user named Shoq, who often comments on media issues. Here is some of that exchange:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 4.23.48 PM

4. This brought into the discussion my NYU colleague Clay Shirky. He had the following exchange with Sarah McCammon. (Link.)

Shirky: “Sarah, that’s wrong. When professors look for plagiarism, we look for copying without attribution, period.”

McCammon: “I’m aware. My husband is a professor. Different standards for different situations/fields.”

Shirky: “Are you are walking back your ‘technical’ excuse? And saying NPR’s standard is just not to use the word?”

McCammon: “Uh, not an excuse. Not walking anything back. Again, I refer you to our policy. NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold.”

Remember those words: “lower threshhold.”

5. Shirky’s point can be seen in this passage from NYU’s ethics handbook for journalism students:

Cardinal Sins

Plagiarism: Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism — using someone else’s words as if they were your own — is, simply stated, stealing.

Nothing about intent. This is from the Harvard College Writing Program:

In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

My italics. This one is from Oxford University’s guide for students: (My italics.)

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional. Under the regulations for examinations, intentional or reckless plagiarism is a disciplinary offence.

6. These were Sarah McCammon’s main points as she responded to the many people on Twitter who were puzzled by NPR’s refusal to call what Melania Trump did “plagiarism.”

* Our guidelines say it has to be intentional. I have to follow them. (Link.)
* I can’t see into Melania’s mind. I have no way to judge intent. (Link.)
* I present facts and trust listeners to make up their own minds. (Link.)
* What academics say isn’t relevant. My reference point is other journalists. (Link.)

7. Other journalists? Well, the Washington Post had no trouble calling it plagiarism: Why it became almost impossible for the Trumps to insist Melania’s plagiarism was coincidence. Do they have lower standards than NPR? (Another example.) And it wasn’t just headlines: (All bolding by me.)

Memo to all remaining 2016 convention speakers, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat: You are officially on notice. The words you say will be researched by reporters to determine whether they have ever been said before, in the same order in which you are saying them now.

This is the consequence of Melania Trump using plagiarized sections of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech in an address to the Republican National Convention on Monday. Journalists now have a new game to play when speakers take the stage: “Spot the Source.”

Would the New York Times be one of the news organizations from which Sarah McCammon takes her cues? Nope.

“My name is Meredith McIver and I’m an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization,” began an extraordinary statement she released Wednesday morning in which she took the blame for the disastrous plagiarism of Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s prime-time speech Monday at the Republican National Convention.

CNN, maybe? Alas, no: “Donald Trump’s campaign finally moved Wednesday to shut down the distracting controversy over Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech by identifying the writer who worked on the speech.” Los Angles Times: same deal. “The Trump campaign released a statement Wednesday – ‘to whom it may concern’ – ascribing the plagiarized passages in Melania Trump’s convention speech to a scribe working for Donald Trump’s corporate operation.”

8. The point is: if NPR wanted to call a spade a spade it had a clear warrant for doing so— from academic sources, from journalism peers, or via a simple dictionary definition. But NPR doesn’t want to call a plagiarized convention speech a plagiarized convention speech. Why? Because there could be a controversy about it! As indeed there immediately was after Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. Trump defender Chris Christie rejected that description. So did campaign chair Paul Manafort, who even blamed Hillary Clinton for the controversy.

NPR’s intention in these charged moments is not to describe the world vividly and accurately for listeners, but to escape from acts of judgment that could be criticized in the heat of a campaign. And even though it’s a fairly simple matter to assess what happened here and decide that, yep, the speech was plagiarized — and then report on whodunit — for NPR the relevant factor isn’t the ease of applying a standard definition of plagiarism but how simple it is to avoid getting dragged into a messy fight. And so the guidance went out: “It’s fine to say there’s a ‘plagiarism issue’ or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized…”

Alongside the production of news, NPR is worried about reproducing its own innocence in matters of controversy. The code for this is: people can make up their own minds. Which is really saying: NPR can’t think, but we invite you to!

9. Now we come to the most revealing moment in the exchanges I reproduced for you: when Sarah McCammon tells Clay Shirky: NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold. Fascinating! For it’s really the opposite. NYU, Harvard, Oxford all have a tougher standard than NPR. If you borrow someone’s words without attribution, that’s plagiarism and you have to face the consequences. Under the more relaxed standard that NPR favors, you not only have to borrow someone else’s words without attribution to be committing plagiarism, you also have to show malicious intent. And NPR has to have some reliable way of knowing your intent. This is a lower threshold. Because of it many more people will be able to commit plagiarism without being called out for it by NPR.

And yet reporter Sarah McCammon says NPR has a higher threshold. What does she mean? Well, she’s not an idiot. Her claim makes sense, but only if you understand the culture of timidity at NPR. What her bosses are worried about is making a judgment that could be contested. Before they’re willing to do that, they need a lot of evidence. What they have in mind is not “what’s the right thing to call this?” or “what’s the best descriptor for our listeners?” but “how can we make fewer calls that can be criticized by powerful actors?” and “how can we report on controversies without becoming part of them?”

When those are the starting points, a “lower” threshold means you are willing to make more calls that could be criticized. And academics can tell you: almost every student who plagiarizes says “it was not my intent!” If you’re going to be real about plagiarism, you are going to be criticized, not only by students but by their parents. If you have high standards, you take the heat. If you have low standards, you worry about how much heat you will get. Sarah McCammon had flipped this in her mind, and she was unaware of it. But she was right about one thing: it’s unproductive to rage at her, for she has no choice but to follow NPR guidelines.

10. If “academic institutions have a lower threshold” was the most telling thing she said, this was to me the most interesting:

In a way she’s right. If she calls it plagiarism on air that doesn’t change anything. But that’s because calling things by their right names should not be an issue we have to fight with journalists about. The fact that it is an issue, not only with plagiarism but with more serious descriptors like torture, is a sign of weakness in the culture of journalism, and this is especially so at NPR.

This makes a lot of its listeners sad.

UPDATE, July 26: Steve Buttry wrote about this issue at his blog. He also got Mark Memmott, NPR’s editor for standards and practices, to comment. Here is what Memmott said by way of explanation:

When we wrote our Ethics Handbook in 2012 we included this definition of plagiarism: ‘Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.’ We realized that wasn’t a strict ‘dictionary definition.’ But we included the word ‘intentionally’ for a very specific reason: to allow us to apply some judgment.

We were thinking about how we would react if a journalist who had never stolen from someone else’s work inadvertently left a line or phrase from another file in his or her copy. Did that person make a serious mistake? Yes. Does that person deserve to be labeled a ‘plagiarist’ and be disciplined or even fired? We wanted some flexibility to make an intelligent decision.

On the morning when I reminded the staff about our definition, the story about Melania Trump’s speech was developing. I was thinking that we should not rush to hold her to a different standard than we would hold ourselves.

You and others have said that no one will ever admit they intended to plagiarize. You may be right. But I would say that a confession isn’t necessary to determine intent. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a slip by someone who’s never been accused or convicted of plagiarism and a story that’s got several “lifts” from different sources. And if someone slips and is later caught again, I think intent has been proven by his actions.

You wrote that we’re guilty of ‘comical gymnastics.’ That’s a good line. I would hope, though, that you would give us some credit for trying to think things through. Have we overthought it? Perhaps. But I would say our intentions are good.

One more thing. Sarah McCammon is a good journalist who was applying the guidance she was given by her editors. If there’s a problem, it’s because of her editors (most notably me), not her.


Bill Pardee says:

I appreciate the instinct to present the facts without the bumper sticker, because listeners can draw their own conclusions, and also because being force fed the ultimate conclusion is off-putting if one fancies they can think for themselves. btw, there is a very big difference in the law between testifying to the facts and testifying to the ultimate legal conclusion, and that distinction also seems to fit well with the line drawn here.

Labels are lazy.

I interpret “lower threshold” in her original tweet to mean “triggered by smaller offenses”, i.e. more strict. I could be wrong, but that seems like the most reasonable reading of the phrase. If true, negates your point 9.

No, it doesn’t negate point 9. It simply means that her phrase “lower threshold” makes some sense. Which is what I said in the post.

Hers is the most reasonable reading only if you accept the culture of timidity at NPR, or to put it in more neutral language: the imperative to limit liability. That is what I am arguing.

I know what she meant. Doesn’t mean I have to accept what she meant.

Paul Lukasiak says:

it took me about six readings, but I finally figured out that

“lower threshhold” = “higher standards” in this instance.

Marc Lajoie says:

I’m confused. So, NPR uses a different definition of plagiarism than the rest of the planet, but they leave it to readers to decide for themselves if plagiarism occurred? (And they don’t give their definition in the text.) So how is a reader equipped to make that decision? (“We leave it to the reader to decide whether this meets our secret definition of plagiarism.”) And even if they weren’t using an obscure definition of plagiarism, it is an academic term that I doubt the ordinary reader knows the technical definition of — this is exactly the sort of situation where a journalist needs to step in and use their judgement.

At NPR, the journalist steps in to suspend judgment. It’s weird.

1) Sorry to see McCammon (fine front-line reporter) drawn in so much; I’d like to see your points and Shirky’s addressed directly by Memmott, since he appears to have formulated the policy; 2) Jay, one obvious question: if NPR has a “culture of timidity” and wants “to escape from acts of judgment that could be criticized,” is the criticism it fears mainly from the Right for being “liberal media”? OR do you see NPR being equally timid in reporting about all points on the political spectrum?

I think the origins of it are in fear of attack from the right, but it operates as a more generalized timidity— bipartisan, you could say.

I think this is probably evidence of a problem at NPR, one that I think we’ve seen a lot in the past. What I wonder, though, is why _this particular example_ of this problem is the one that motivates an analytical article?

Is it that it’s so obvious that it’s hard to argue with? I ask because I honestly don’t care very much about this, and I doubt anyone else does either. Nobody expected anything much from Mrs. Trump’s speech. The things that bother me in NPRs coverage are when they fail to adequately report on things like the Democratic Party’s attempts to torpedo progressive democrats in primaries, both nationally and in local races.

The main problem with NPR is that people think it is the voice of the loyal opposition, and it’s pretty clearly not–it’s pretty clearly a neoliberal branch of the fourth estate, and while I tend to find their reporting better than, say, Fox News, I do not trust them to tell the unvarnished truth or, most importantly, to ask hard questions.

By making this the example over which they are called to task for not asking hard questions, aren’t you really failing to ask hard questions as well?

I know what you mean. I have picked a small thing to write about.

This is a cultural problem. Meaning: a problem in the culture of the organization. But since saying that doesn’t help much, I had to wait for something to happen that illustrates what I mean. I found it last week, but unfortunately the “it” I found is pretty trivial: NPR’s inability to call Melania Trump’s plagiarized convention speech a plagiarized convention speech.
My hope is that by “getting granular,” zooming in on this one episode, I can illuminate what I mean by a cultural problem— which is the big thing.

NPR people don’t see what’s happened to them. Here, a reporter thinks she is following the standards of her profession, but she doesn’t seem to know that NPR has fallen behind the rest of the profession in its ability to call things by their right names. That’s a big thing.

If the method doesn’t work for you, well, I understand that.

Cassandra says:

What’s confusing about this to a long time listener is that they don’t have the same kind of timidity in reporting on leadership in other countries (especially non-European ones). Plus the BBC airs multiple segments on my NPR station throughout the day and you can definitely hear the difference in reporting confidence. There are plenty of times that I just wait to hear what the BBC reports on an American political issue to feel that it has been adequately covered.

“You can definitely hear the difference in reporting confidence… ” Bingo.

Mark Poepsel says:

Or as they say in Mexico, “Lotería.”

Paul Lukasiak says:

Jay — picking out trivial examples is really the only effective way to make your point to the whole audience. If you were to use reporting on a controversial issues, the discussion winds up centering on the controversy, and not on the issues you raised (see your previous post).

Suzanne England says:

What are their “standards” re calling a candidate’s statements “lies”? Trump’s son recently repeatedly called Clinton a liar but I seem to rarely hear Trump’s many lies called by that term in the media.

Jeffrey Patten says:

Ms Trump used ideas, words, phrases, and even whole passages in the same order that Ms Obama had – in the same circumstances. Plagiarism indeed, from any number of perspectives.
If you must have intent to complete the definition, look no farther than Meredith. She knew her source. So, if you can’t call Ms Trump a plagiarist due to her ignorance, you can call her an irresponsible ignoramus. By definition, of course.

Gabi Patel says:

Worst NPR article I’ve ever read!!! It’s plagiarism plain and simple!! Every educated human can see it and the American people don’t buy it for a second! Next you will be trying to tell us all of Melania’s plastic surgery is because she’s “ethnic!” Get with the program and please provide us some authentic journalism!!

Could this be, the “culture of timidity” at NPR, because they receive government funding? After the last 30y of attacks by conservatives?

I would suggest that much like Hillary Clinton appears to have some PTSD around the last 35y of irrational attacks by conservative groups about everything she’s every breathed upon, so NPR has become skittish and therefore won’t call plagiarism plagiarism, when it comes from the Right side of things verses the Progressive side, where they might feel more freedom to do so?

LINK: National Private Radio (

I agree it is useful to note how timidity has infected reporting at NPR and elsewhere. But the much larger problem — and the cause of this timidity — goes unaddressed in this debate. How exactly are we going to restore stable funding for unbiased, fact-based general interest investigative reporting in this country? The old business model based on advertising is dead, as our withering and fraying democracy attests. The Fourth Estate, vital to our democracy – is now basically bankrupt — financially bankrupt, broke, tapped out, no money. This is a clear and present danger to our democracy with the timidity at NPR just a symptom of that larger problem.

Paul Lukasiak says:

the only hope that we will ever see that kind of reporting on a national level is if some obscenely wealthy philanthropists set up a Poynter Foundation on steroids.

But even that has problems, because
1)”the audience” doesn’t really want the kind of news it needs to make informed decisions as citizens.
2) Facts have a liberal bias — and you can bet that conservatives would be constantly trashing that news organization.

Paul Lukasiak says:

NPR has a piece on past political plagarism — and the don’t seem shy about using the word in regard to past instances…

unfortunately, I don’t have access to the kind of news databases I assume that you do. Is there any chance of determining whether this standard for “plagarism” is longstanding at NPR–that it was applied to contemporary reporting of the “past” cases?

Gavin McCormick says:

A question for Mark Memmott: If an NPR reporter were to use, say, CNN language in an NPR report without attribution, and then defended himself by saying the use was unintentional, would that pass NPR’s standards and practices test for reporters? Or would that be a fireable offense?

Bill Comfort says:

Funny how ethical journalism with specific, detailed standards is now perceived as a failing. I would argue that NPR is one of the few remaining true, “pure” journalistic enterprises, vs, commentary and judgement masquerading as reporting to sell more papers and ads. This whole over-wrought exercise in semantics only supports my thesis.

Semantics? That’s your summary of what this post is about? Mere semantics?

NPR is a prisoner of it own self-imposed political correctness. Getting their announcers to say “Live” during their top of the hour newscasts took a monumental negotiation.

Chris Vaaler says:

I tweeted Jay Rosen’s original brief tweet, “a timid newsroom unable to rise to the moment”, to Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep. Inskeep referred to it as ‘name calling’. That explains volumes.

NPR has demonstrated not to be a credible source of news. It has failed in its role of questioning and making those that need to be accountable – sad. Their policy does not represent what society expects to get from credible and responsible journalism.

Jim Farley says:

You certainly made your point about plagiarism. But let me ask: “…calling things by their right names should not be an issue we have to fight with journalists about.” So how about undocumented worker? That term is not used in federal law. The correct legal term is illegal alien.

Richard Aubrey says:

This is one of those “are you sure you want to go there?” things.
I mean, look at Clinton, the emails, Comey and “intent”.
Lukasiak made a common-sense observation when he suggested the use of a minor issue was a good idea to keep the argument from being about the issue instead of the plagiarism.
Still, other examples occur even if not the subject of the discussion.
Since we went there, here is where we are.

I didn’t even know this. Not that it will change my mind.

NPR is not ready to handle the candidacy of Donald Trump. I was already soooo over them.

It frankly is context specific. I taught university English and had occasion to deal with several instances of undergraduates using unattributed near-identical lifts from published academic papers. The outcome of conferences with the offenders ranged from cautions and clarifications after down-grading, to advising that I’d flunked the paper and the student would do well to drop before the drop date.

In this case, we know that MT had recourse to a professional consultant on the speech and a professional team charged with vetting it for distribution. She’s an obviously unskilled speaker who had reason to rely on her team, which failed her. Good job by the press that it all came out, good job that we’ve learned MT frankly admires and echoes Michelle Obama’s vision of the Presidency. Enough said and done.

Don Utter says:

I really appreciate this effort. It makes clear what I have experienced over the last few years as I listen less and less to NPR and note that they have more and more corporate ads.

Here in Columbus OH, we now have a low power FM station with a focus on the environment and women but has many other excellent programs including DemocracyNow and Thom Hartmann. I listen to that in the car and read solid stuff like NYRB and New Yorker and Sunday times and a lot of stuff on the web.

lhaughton says:

“the deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as one’s own without attribution…” is how the writing center at UNC, Chapel Hill defines plagiarism. “Deliberate or reckless” Just FYI.
But what do you call the person who smiles and speaks the words of another without rolling credit (to a speechwriter or ghostwriter)? If you pay them does the honor code still insist the you avoid acting like you made it up by yourself? Does a NDA cover your butt? Or are you a phony no matter what?

Richard Aubrey says:

Was this all about two lines?
Well, as Lukasiak said, pick the least important example so you don’t get hung up on the example
Well done.