Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Notes (Exchange) on a Scandal:
The Ron Borges Suspension

At the heart of Ron Borges' two-month suspension from the Boston Globe for plagiarism is the shadowy world of the "notes exchange."

In these groups, beat reporters and columnists upload their local quotes, notes and tips to each other for use in their columns. I guess this is why online readers who check out several different regional columns will see the same info over and over. Ever wonder why or how that happens? It's not coincidence; worse, it's by design.

At best, this is lazy journalism. (In the online age, how hard is it to find this stuff yourself? Reporters don't need to travel any further than their laptop or reach out to any sources beyond "Google" to be on their way.)

At worst, this is fraud, if not plagiarism (unless you're Borges, and you simply seem to cut-and-paste entire passages from the exchange). Based on my limited understanding of the system, sports reporters and columnists who use notes exchanges are either:

(a) Giving their stuff away to competitors for free, behind an opaque wall and involving tacit and shadowy agreements of complicity; or (b) not doing their own legwork, but still drawing a paycheck from their paper as if they are. I appreciate that this is an economical way for reporters or columnists to find source material, but if everyone is going to draw from the same well, why not simply save the paper money and run a nationally syndicated "notes" column and have the reporter or columnist file something wholly original, if short.

In an age where newspapers are universally available online, the practice of "notes exchanges" and its byproduct -- communal column-writing -- should end. (I offer kudos to those reporters or columnists who regularly attribute their details to their original source or, even better, use the convenient resource of the Web to create their own notes without the exchange.)

And shame on the reporters who can't do their own research -- and, perhaps even more, on the failure of leadership by sports editors whose inconsistent application of attribution in columns like these (and, more generally, whose lenient standards towards these "notes exchanges") have allowed this system to reach its inevitable spot at the bottom of what has always been a slippery slope.

-- D.S.

P.S.: As for Borges, he's lucky he still has a job waiting for him two months from now. But, via ProFootballTalk.com, there's one role he has no business being a part of: As a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Is Borges the Alex Karras of journalism? Perhaps: But just as Karras will never sniff the Hall, Borges' ethical lapse gives him no standing to judge others -- and certainly not on behalf of a public trust like the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I'll be interested to see how quickly the Hall of Fame reacts to this... or if they will circle around one of their own. It will say something profound about a selection process that is already under scrutiny as far too shadowy.

UPDATE: I highly recommend reading Will's take on this over at Deadspin. Here's the link, and here's the Line I Wish I Wrote: "[The] scary part is not that Borges plagiarized; the scary part is that, while just changing a few words, everybody is."


Real Men Eat Haggis said...

The Globe did the same 2-month suspension with Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith a few years back...and they used the time to do further investigation and build the case to fire them, which they did.

The same thing will almost certainly happen to Borges - he's done. The ironic thing is that all he had to do was say somewhere within the lifted material column "according to the Tacoma Tribune" he'd have been fine.

Big D said...

No chance in hell Borges returns to The Globe. When Barnacle got caught, the Internet still hadn't reached it's full "exposure" potential.

Anyone within the Globe's readership realm with Internet access has formed an opinion on this already, and I'd wager that about 98% of those opinions are along the lines of "It's about time he got his ass canned".


Sean P. Means said...

I had never witnessed this "notes exchange" until I was covering a movie-studio junket and saw five or six entertainment "reporters" divvying up assignments to transcribe the celebrity interviews so they could e-mail them to each other. Alas, accusing these junket whores of being lazy is like calling Seattle rainy - a big "no, really?"
Sean Means, movie critic, Salt Lake Tribune

David said...

Sean, what you describe is something quite different from a notes exchange.

If reporters know that every media outlet in a competitive situation had a representative at various "gang bang" sessions with players, at a press conference and, say, at a teleconference -- this is the average Wednesday during an NFL season, by the way -- they'll divide up the transcriptions. There's no competitive advantage lost because all outlets were there. The guys who were there first, however, aren't expected to share what was said before everybody and his mama got there.

They do it to save everybody time. Everybody doesn't have to transcribe everything, which, some days, would be a long, laborious process that would have had deadlines being pushed even before today's "get us something for online" world.

A notes exchange, on the other hand, is each writer doing a few paragraphs on the three or four things with his team that he thinks readers in another city would find interesting and feeding them into a pool. Writers can take the notes they wish, although the protocol is to rewrite the information with your own view/angle/spin AND note the source that did the reporting on the original material.

Greg Seltzer said...

Ha! I would never share my quotes or info particulars. I'm stingy with my exclusives and legwork. What's the point otherwise?

Lazy and self-defeating practice, I say. If asked to join one of these knitting circles, I'd laugh myself silly for 2 days.