7 Things Journalists Should Never Do (But Jill Abramson Did Anyway)

The former New York Times executive editor is under fire as several journalists have accused her of plagiarizing in her book, "Merchants of Truth."
Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is facing several serious charges of plagiarism and incorrect citing in her new book, "Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution."
Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is facing several serious charges of plagiarism and incorrect citing in her new book, "Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution."
Donald Bowers via Getty Images

Jill Abramson, former New York Times executive editor, should be every journalist’s cautionary tale.

The longtime journalist has been skewered this week by others in the industry for her latest work, Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution, a book that dives deep into the news industry ― specifically The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice ― and how journalistic standards are deteriorating.

The book is also allegedly filled with flubbed facts and signs of plagiarism.

Abramson has denied plagiarizing in her book and later admitted to National Public Radio that there were passages she failed to cite in the footnotes.

“Though I did cite these publications and tried to credit everybody perfectly, you know, I fell short,” Abramson told NPR.

In a statement to The Washington Post, the author defended her work.

“All of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine,” she said. “The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.”

As a journalism professor with a resume of coveted roles at the Times, the Wall Street Journal and, now, The Guardian, Abramson certainly should have known how to properly cite her sources. But the above charges weren’t her only journalistic sins.

Here are the 7 things Abramson did that journalists should really try to avoid.

Abramson does not record her interviews.

In an interview with New York Magazine’s The Cut, Abramson bragged about never recording her interviews thanks to an “almost photographic memory.”

I do not record. I’ve never recorded. I’m a very fast note-taker. When someone kind of says the “it” thing that I have really wanted, I don’t start scribbling right away. I have an almost photographic memory and so I wait a beat or two while they’re onto something else, and then I write down the previous thing they said.

The danger here is obvious. Journalists should almost always record their interviews because humans, however strong their “almost photographic memory is,” are susceptible to mistakes. A recording ensures both the reader and the person quoted that the reporter is accurately reporting the quote, word-for-word.

Abramson’s note-taking apparently failed her. In both an uncorrected proof and the finalized version of the book, she made a number of errors, including what color an interviewee’s boots were.

She allegedly plagiarized other journalists’ work.

Vice News reporter Michael Moynihan was one of the first people to call out Abramson, comparing passages from her book to nearly identical ones from the New Yorker, Time Out magazine and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Journalist Ian Frisch, who also just published a book, found seven more instances where Abramson borrowed from his original.

In examples provided by Moynihan, Abramson tweaked a word or a phrase from another writer’s work, without citing the original source. In most of Frisch’s examples, Abramson used quotes gathered from Frisch as far back as 2014, but did not indicate that she wasn’t interviewing the subjects herself.

At the very least, Abramson didn’t cite sources within her body of work when she “borrowed” from another journalist.

While Abramson denied plagiarizing anyone else’s work, she said during an interview with Vox that she failed to properly cite passages, like the ones Frisch and Moynihan outed, in the footnotes of her book. She also admitted to borrowing facts from other reporters’ work.

During that interview, Vox’s Sean Illing pointed out that there were passages in her book that were borrowed from an essay by Jake Malooley in Time Out magazine that was not cited in the footnotes.

When asked by Illing if that could be considered plagiarism, Abramson said: “No, I wouldn’t. This was completely unintentional.”

“What we’re talking about here are sets of facts that I borrowed,” she added. “Obviously, the language is too close in some cases, but I’m not lifting original ideas. Again, I wish I had got the citation right, but it’s not an intentional theft or taking someone’s original ideas — it’s just the facts.”

Illing replied with a question: “Plagiarism is as much about riding the coattails of another person’s labor as it is about stealing their exact words — would you at least agree with that?”

She misidentified a Vice journalist as a transgender woman.

In a preliminary version of Merchants of Truth, Abramson incorrectly identified Vice News correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross as a “transgender woman.”

Duhamie-Ross took to Twitter in January to correct the error, as well as several others that she spotted in the paragraph where she’s introduced. She said that Abramson only took handwritten notes, talked to her for “less than 40 minutes” and never reached out to her after the interview.

“I’m not trans,” Duhaime-Ross tweeted Jan. 14. “During our chat, I told her I’m a queer, gender non-conforming woman. She didn’t ask for an explanation. She didn’t ask for my pronouns.”

In the final copy, Abramson described the Vice correspondent as a “gender non-conforming woman.”

Abramson didn’t follow-up with her sources to fact check details.

Duhaime-Ross’s identity wasn’t the only thing that Abramson got wrong. There were a few other incorrect details the Vice correspondent pointed out, but she said Abramson never reached back out to her to verify them.

For example, the first version of Abramson’s book said that Duhaime-Ross was wearing “blue desert boots,” though she said in a tweet she only has “brown desert boots.

Duhaime-Ross also pointed out that Abramson wrote that she “almost missed” covering President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement because she was on her honeymoon and had to rush home.

In a tweet, Duhaime-Ross said she returned from her honeymoon on May 30, 2017. Trump made the announcement on June 1, 2017, when she said she was already back in office.

Both references to the desert boots and honeymoon were later removed from the Kindle edition of Abramson’s book.

She apparently did a very poor job at fact-checking.

Journalist Danny Gold also pointed out an instance where Abramson incorrectly stated that a Vice journalist went into an Ebola clinic in Africa without wearing protective clothing.

“Wow, this is a straight up lie in Jill Abramson’s book,” Gold tweeted with a photo of a page from the book in January. (Merchants of Truth was released to the public in February, but a galley copy was distributed earlier.)

“I was this reporter,” Gold added. “Like every other reporter there, i was told by experts not to walk around with a PPE unless you were in the ICU. I worked alongside Times reporters who a. Gave me that advice and b. Did the same.”

Gold said in a series of tweets that the Vice team decided against going into the Ebola treatment center because “it’s a huge risk.” He also shared a link to the documentary which confirms that.

Gold added that he spoke with Abramson about not going into the clinic and “sent her links to the video where not 1 but 3 times we elected not to take chances.”

She leaned on a stereotype to describe a subject.

When describing BuzzFeed’s former D.C. bureau chief John Stanton, Abramson leaned heavily on a stereotypical version of an ex-convict.

In a scene at a BuzzFeed party in which Stanton was tackled by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s security, Abramson describes Stanton as “well-built” and noted his “sleeve tattoos, shaved head, and goatee. Those characteristics, she writes, “distinguished him as the member of the Beltway press corps who looked most like an ex-convict.”

Stanton was none too pleased with her choice of word, calling “ex-convict” “tired, fucked up stereotype … used to exclude millions of people, limit their access to employment, strip them of their rights, and lock them into cycles of poverty and crime.”

“This may not seem bad to anyone who hasn’t been imprisoned, or who hasn’t had a friend of loved one struggle to re-enter society after being locked up. But the millions of formally incarcerated people in this country, it’s a label that hangs heavy around their necks,” he wrote in a Twitter thread.

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