Outsourcing Responsibility? The Mona Sarika Scandal and Journalistic Ethics

On December 3, we found out that we'd been published in the Wall Street Journal. Well, sort of. Many of ourmade it into an online column -- but our names were nowhere to be found.
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On December 3, we found out that we'd been published in the Wall Street Journal. Well, sort of. Many of our words made it into an online column about "The New Global Indian" -- but our names were nowhere to be found.

In case you haven't heard the details, the Wall Street Journal took down a column written by Mona Sarika and ran a retraction after discovering that she had plagiarized extensively, faked sources, and distorted quotes. Oops.

Following in the footsteps of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, Sarika is the most recent fallen journalist to rise to blogospheric fame. The Huffington Post quickly reported on the story and soon realized that they, and Foreign Policy, had been duped by her too.

After that, publications started dropping Sarika's stories like a bad habit. While this is the appropriate response, there are still lingering issues about ethics, accuracy, and the role of journalism in the digital age.

The first issue is one of protecting writers' credibility -- not just the publications'. Sarika's plagiarized column, published on November 10, ran for over 3 weeks and circulated widely on the Web. Some of our sources saw it, others didn't. But none of them knew that we had not given the green light to use their names or stories in the piece. We hadn't even been asked. (Sources, let this be a lesson -- always contact the journalist who interviewed you if you see something fishy like this!)

Once the story about Sarika's plagiarism broke, we were able to explain to our sources why so much of the personal information they shared with us was now being misrepresented in a high-profile publication. Sarika not only drew exact phrases from our article, but also misattributed experiences and quotes to individuals whose names she only slightly changed. (Really, Sweta Mehta?) It turns out that roughly 40 % of Sarika's column was taken from our June 2009 article for Little India.

As an academic and journalist by trade, we were naturally taken aback by the brazen use of our research and writing, and at a loss as to how to react. I (Amy), a PhD candidate, had conducted the interviews as part of dissertation-level research on H-1b visa workers -- a sensitive topic in today's economic climate -- which required months of relationship-building in the U.S. and India.

As a freelance writer, my (Shiwani's) career is entirely about earning trust from editors, sources, and publications. This is increasingly difficult in an era when freelance writers seem to be a dime a dozen. What's scary is that had the plagiarism not been discovered, my credibility could have been ruined with my sources.

A second issue is that the Wall Street Journal's decision to run their retraction without links to the original pieces from which Sarika plagiarized means that she has gotten way more attention than any of the topics she wrote about. These are important issues that are worthy of public discussion -- and that's the rub.

Removing her piece without directing readers to the original articles fails to convey the significant coverage that is clearly in circulation on the issue of H-1B workers and the economic downturn in the U.S. This isn't just a question of giving credit where credit's due -- it's also about rectifying the misinformation that Sarika perpetuated.

Third, even though the Wall Street Journal removed Sarkia's plagiarized column, you can still easily find the text of it on the Web and in the blogosphere. So the story continues to be read, uncredited and filled with inaccuracies, on the Internet. This may not be an individual publisher's responsibility, but it's a changing reality that all publications need to confront.

So what are writers and media outlets supposed to do? In academia, professors are expected to ensure that their students' work is original. Shouldn't there be the same sense of responsibility amongst journalism professionals?

In fact, there are plenty of free and for-purchase plagiarism detection tools online. When we first got wind of Sarika's plagiarism, we did our own analysis by plugging the text of her article into a free online tool that searches for similar word combinations in other articles on the Web. Had the publisher run Sarika's piece through a similar process, they would've found that her article took full sentences and paragraphs, virtually word for word, from our story and others in the Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine.

Is it foolproof? No, but it raises clear red flags that call for further investigation. In an era when media outlets are under tremendous stress to produce news on tightening budgets, editors need to rely on their reporters to be honest and meticulous. But the news media is also at a critical juncture at which they can't afford to lose the public's trust if they hope to stay afloat.

In a recent lecture to a journalism class at the University of Albany, the notorious Jayson Blair talked about how plagiarism is easier than ever (he should know), thanks to the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and decreasing staff. Of course, the fact that Blair still has a career at all in journalism speaks to a larger problem where quick output is valued over good reporting in order to feed the news machine.

If nothing else, Sarika's fall from grace has shown that no matter what shortcuts you take -- either as an editor relying on unchecked freelancers or as a writer copying from publicly available work -- the jury is still out on the question of whose responsibility it is to ensure ethics and accuracy in journalism.

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