UPDATE 5/8: CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan praised KUNM for "reconsider[ing] what the station should have done and will do in the future."
You can read his second report here.
Joel Kaplan, Ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, recently forwarded a question he received asking whether the KUNM’s response to recent plagiarism allegations was delayed because of a concern about funding for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico reporting project.
Here is how KUNM News Director Elaine Baumgartel responded:
Dear Mr. Kaplan,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you some of my experiences with the plagiarism allegations at KUNM, and the way we have fundamentally changed the way we are approaching staff training and transparency.
When I received the plagiarism allegations in November 2013, I was horrified. And shocked, frankly. There was no delay in my response. I took immediate action and I received full support from KUNM Program Director Tristan Clum and KUNM General Manager Richard Towne.
You advised in your report that we should have published information about the plagiarism immediately, perhaps not including the name of the staff member who was accused. This was not something that we considered at the time, and I regret not doing so.
I did review the work of all KUNM reporters. I was at first concerned that there had been some sort of accepted practice in the newsroom that I was unaware of (despite being the most senior KUNM news staff member and having been in the interim news director position for 6 months). I was relieved to find that our news staff was consistently producing original work and citing other sources properly on-air and online.
I notified our media partners immediately upon discovering that they had each carried one of the stories in question. Both of our media partners made independent decisions about how to approach the situation, and I think they would say we did our due diligence of informing them of the problems with the stories that we shared with them.
At KUNM, we posted an Editor’s Note on one story, adding attribution where it was missing. I was then advised by the HR Department not to post an Editor’s Note on the other story, so there was a delay before missing attribution was added.
I dove into the bureaucratic process of implementing the University of New Mexico’s performance management policy, which is how UNM staff members are held accountable for poor performance or inappropriate behavior. This involves a progressive discipline system. It was my first time doing something like this, and I had to learn the procedures. I knew that I had to act with integrity, respect and professionalism, and I wanted to do it right. I wanted to treat the KUNM staff member who had been accused of plagiarism the way I would have wanted to be treated had I been in his or her position.
The personnel disciplinary process with the UNM Human Resources department is slow, and weeks passed before we had any clarity on what disciplinary action we could take. They are not on a news department timeframe and it was entirely obvious to me throughout this experience that UNM does not provide the agility or the foundation for quick, decisive personnel decisions. So that was and will continue to be a challenge for me in this position.
The confidentiality of personnel matters is also fundamentally at odds with our responsibility as a news organization to be accountable to the public, to correct our mistakes and to be transparent with the public about how we are addressing ethical breaches. It’s a conflict that I was unprepared to address in the face of media coverage and your initial request for information. My superiors at KUNM were also relatively unprepared to guide me. So I did the best I could.
I have had lots of time to reflect on what I could have done differently. I have also taken the time to listen to critique by former and current staff members. I recognize that I should have been more forthcoming internally in dealing with the impact the plagiarism has had on newsroom staff. I relied on the journalists to do their jobs and behave professionally despite the damage to morale and mounting frustration about not being included in the decision-making process along-side management personnel.
In retrospect, I recognize that I should have been more up front in acknowledging the tension that this kind of episode creates in a newsroom instead of making the personnel issue top priority. And I am committed to rectifying this.
I also learned that when it looks like someone is getting away with something, chaos reigns. So I have learned a very valuable lesson the hard way.
Part of the solution to an ethical breach like plagiarism in a newsroom is to go back to the foundations of journalism ethics with the entire staff.
That is why I scheduled trainings that covered not just the attribution and plagiarism aspects of journalism ethics, but also the range of ethical issues that journalists will face at one time or another in their careers. The trainings covered a wide range of material and were not just focused on sourcing, attribution and the prohibition of plagiarized content.
We also discussed in detail the types of workplace habits and workflow decisions journalists can implement that minimize the chance of even an accidental use of a turn of phrase or a quote from another source without attribution. And materials were provided and discussed with staff describing the intricacies of a broadcast news outlet that has a contract with a wire service and produces online content.
I set out to make sure that every single member of the newsroom staff was as clear as possible about as many potential scenarios as possible. And I made it clear that the environment we were working in had to be one where people could ask questions and get guidance when they weren’t clear on the best way to proceed.
We have a staff of professional folks who have a broad range of experiences and backgrounds. We all have something to offer when it comes to how to do things and how to tell great stories and find awesome sources.
Regarding your question about whether funding considerations resulted in a delayed response to the plagiarism allegations, or whether it was related to our failure to publicly disclose the plagiarism, I can tell you unequivocally, no. That was never a factor in my decision-making.
I am aggressively mining this experience for tactics and strategies for future issues in the newsroom. We are successfully building ethics into our trainings, culture and practice so that plagiarism will not happen again. This experience has forced us to talk about plagiarism and ethics directly and specifically and to make plans for breaches.
I would highly recommend that other newsrooms do the same. I would tell them, if you haven’t already had this discussion in your newsroom, if you don’t already know what you would do if one of your staff plagiarized something, figure it out now. It’s brutal to have to figure it out as it’s happening.
I would have liked to do an interview with The Santa Fe Reporter’s Joey Peters when he asked for me to explain what we had done in the newsroom as a result of the plagiarism allegations. And I would have liked to provide information to you when you first requested it.
But here at UNM, there was no protocol for how KUNM was to handle these requests. I wanted to talk but was told not to. In the end, upper management at KUNM is now aware of the need for greater transparency among staff members and for the public. That is why you are getting this detailed statement from me now.
KUNM General Manager Richard Towne has initiated a plan for a campus-wide meeting with the other media outlets associated with the University and the top brass at UNM to develop standard procedures so the exact lines are perfectly clear – what cannot be discussed and violates confidentiality policies, and what information can be discussed in order to provide the transparency and accountability that we news organizations should demonstrate.
It is incredibly frustrating to be the head of a journalistic entity whose sole purpose is to expose information and tell the truth – and to simultaneously be gagged in the name of a policy. I can assure you, it pained me more than it pained you to see it play out in coverage by a diligent media outlet I admire.
I had assumed that I would be able to speak publicly and explain everything that I thought was public information. If I had had my way, I would have put it all out there because I know that on the outside, it looked as if nothing was happening. The old refrain, “No comment, it’s a personnel matter” just isn’t enough. And neither is “We are taking appropriate action.”
As a journalist I already knew that. Now, as the leader of a newsroom, I know how to do better. And I will.