Acting on a tip, Journal Sentinel editors accused Fitzpatrick of insufficient attribution – a.k.a. plagiarism. The newspaper’s ethics policy says of plagiarism: “We do not borrow someone else’s work. Material lifted from other newspapers and other media, including Internet, archive and wire service sources, should be fully attributed.” That means disclosing where information comes from […]
Acting on a tip, Journal Sentinel editors accused Fitzpatrick of insufficient attribution – a.k.a. plagiarism. The newspaper’s ethics policy says of plagiarism: “We do not borrow someone else’s work. Material lifted from other newspapers and other media, including Internet, archive and wire service sources, should be fully attributed.” That means disclosing where information comes from and putting quotation marks around somebody else’s words. Especially after New York Times reporter Jayson Blair made national headlines for plagiarism, this offense can ruin a journalist’s credibility. It can also damage the reputation of editors and newspapers if such cases are mishandled. The tortured saga of Fitzpatrick and the Journal Sentinel began with one plagiarism accusation, yet escalated into a far bigger problem for the newspaper.
Why? Because JS editors dodged media inquiries, stone-walled the release of information to the public and gave Fitzpatrick a confidential settlement to resign quietly. Editors now face serious questions about whether they attempted to cover up the scope of the problem.
“If plagiarism is found, they need to come clean,” says Karen Slattery, journalism ethics professor at Marquette University. “They can’t just sweep it under the rug.”
Journal Sentinel management first learned of a potential problem when a Waukesha Freeman editor alerted them to similarities between Fitzpatrick’s bikini story and an anonymous Internet story, sources say. After doing some checking, Editor Marty Kaiser promptly suspended Fitzpatrick without pay, deleted her story from the newspaper’s online archives and on June 26 published an eye-grabbing “Editor’s Note” to readers.
“The article appearing under the byline of Catherine Fitzpatrick gave partial credit to the reporting of Steve Rushin in a February 21, 1997, issue of Sports Illustrated. However, much of the reporting and writing in the JS article came from an Internet report whose authorship is uncertain,” Kaiser writes.
Milwaukee Magazine found the Internet story by doing a simple Google search. Actually, the same story has been popping up on different Web sites for years, including bikiniatoll.com, vipmodel.com, absolute-bikini.com and even a hard-core porn site to which no journalist would ever want his or her name linked. Fitzpatrick lifted several sentences word for word without using quotation marks or citing the online story.
Here’s an excerpt from Fitzpatrick’s article: “As part of wartime rationing, the U.S. government in 1943 ordered a 10 percent reduction in the fabric used in women’s swimwear. Off went the skirt panel and out came the bare midriff.”
Here’s an excerpt from the uncredited Internet story: “As part of wartime rationing, the U.S. Government, in 1943, ordered a 10 percent reduction in the fabric used in women’s swimwear. Off went the skirt panel, and out came the bare midriff.”
Kaiser launched an investigation into Fitzpatrick’s previous work, just like The New York Times did with Blair. According to newsroom sources, Kaiser found six more articles with substandard attribution and confronted Fitzpatrick with the evidence in a July 11 meeting.
Interestingly, Kaiser did not go public with these additional cases. “The newspaper has no plans to do any further corrections if she goes away quietly,” a knowledgeable source said at the time. Fitzpatrick didn’t go away quietly though. She hired a lawyer, Dan Shneidman, to save her job.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee Magazine started its own investigation and found three stories dating back to 2001 with attribution problems. Fitzpatrick’s choice of words and lack of attribution can be troubling. For instance:
Fitzpatrick in “T-shirts are woven into the fabric of our lives” (January 8, 2003): “But nothing galvanized the acceptance of the T-shirt like World War II.” Author Alice Harris in the book The White T (1996): “But nothing galvanized the acceptance of the T like the last World War.”
Fitzpatrick in “Romancing the stones has gone on for centuries” (May 13, 2002): “Natural turquoise comes directly from the mine. It is cut, shaped, polished and set into jewelry with no other man-made treatment.” Anonymous author on the Web site turquoise-amber.com: “Natural – This turquoise comes directly from the mine. It is cut, shaped, polished and set into jewelry.”
If Kaiser did find a pattern of plagiarism, he could have fired Fitzpatrick. Editors at The Sacramento Bee, Salt Lake Tribune and Sedalia Democrat fired reporters this year for similar offenses, sending strong messages to the public and their newsrooms.
Kaiser instead chose to offer Fitzpatrick a confidential settlement in return for her hushed resignation, which she accepted July 23. Word has it that Fitzpatrick, as part of the settlement, agreed not to file any grievances or legal actions. In effect, they bought her silence and departure.
Ultimately, Kaiser only went public again (on August 3) after Milwaukee Magazine notified him three days earlier about its findings. This time, though, it was a “Correction,” not the more serious “Editor’s Note,” and Fitzpatrick was referred to as a “former staff reporter” instead of by name. There’s also no mention of “plagiarism” or what happened to Fitzpatrick or that this correction is linked to the previous editor’s note. Is this coming clean?
Neither Kaiser nor Fitzpatrick’s immediate supervisor, features editor Diane Bacha, responded to interview requests.
Fitzpatrick responded through her lawyer. In his words, of course: “She really has nothing to say to you.”