April 11, 2007 -- CBS News and its biggest star, Katie Couric, are engaged in some painful soul searching after an embarrassing case of plagiarism.
The network is promising changes in its procedures after it found that an online video essay read by Couric closely resembled a column in the Wall Street Journal about the fading appeal of library books. The essay was prepared by a producer who has been fired.
The network reacted quickly after it was alerted about the situation by an editor at the Journal on Monday morning. The producer, who CBS News would not identify, had regularly worked with Couric and other staffers on the essay for the last six months.
Couric's personal spokesman referred calls to the news division. "She had the same reaction that we all had and that was we were shocked and very upset by this," said Sandy Genelius of CBS News.
It is common practice for network anchors to depend on the assistance of producers and writers. But Bob Steele, the director of ethics in journalism at the Poynter Institute, emphasized that the fault lies with Couric as well as her producer.
"If we misappropriated the work of someone else, when we plagiarize, we should say that we plagiarized," said Steele. "But the journalist whose name is on it is still responsible."
At a news meeting with Couric last week, staffers discussed the story idea about the declining appeal of library books and the producer soon helped write the essay for the anchor. Last week, an attentive Journal reader noticed several striking similarities between Jeffrey Zaslow's March 15 column "Of the Places You Go, Is the Library Still One of Them?" and the April 4 installment of "Katie Couric's Notebook."
A quote from a retired librarian in Zaslow's story, "It's a last ditch place to go if they need to find something out," exactly matched a line spoken by Couric in her essay, which is presented in both video and audio formats on the Web site. Couric's essay also repeated other lines and information about sales of juvenile books increasing 60 percent from 2002 to 2005.
The reader informed Zaslow, who passed on the information to an editor at the Journal on Saturday morning. Soon after CBS News was informed of the plagiarism Monday, the network removed the video from its Web site. Genelius, the network's spokesperson, and a CBSNews.com editor also called up Zaslow to apologize for the incident.
Last night, an editor's note appeared on the Couric & Co. blog, explaining the similarity and concluding, "Much of the material in the Notebook came from Mr. Zaslow, and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece. We offer our sincere apologies for the omission."
Zaslow referred all questions to Journal spokesman Robert Christie, who explained that he was satisfied with CBS News' response. "CBS News was very sensitive to the matter and moved very quickly to resolve the matter which we were quite pleased with," he told ABCNEWS.com.
In the wake of the incident, the network is making some changes. "We're doing a couple of things. We're reviewing all the producer's work, which began in earnest on Monday, when we found out about this," said Genelius. The network will also soon conduct a standards seminar to be led by the senior vice president of standards. "And we are also having conversations about additional editorial procedures to make sure this never happens again," said Genelius.
Specialists in journalist ethics were a little more critical of the network's reaction, explaining that the editor's note cited the lack of attribution as the major fault of the essay without emphasizing that there was plagiarism involved. "When we make mistakes, we should be accountable for those mistakes and we should be forthright in our accountability," said Steele.