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Guilty of plagiarism, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Catherine Fitzpatrick was forced out of her job at the newspaper and dumped from her teaching position at Mount Mary College. Guilty of a felony, Journal Sentinel reporter Jamaal Abdul-Alim was welcomed back to the newspaper and awarded a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. What gives? […]

Guilty of plagiarism, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Catherine Fitzpatrick was forced out of her job at the newspaper and dumped from her teaching position at Mount Mary College. Guilty of a felony, Journal Sentinel reporter Jamaal Abdul-Alim was welcomed back to the newspaper and awarded a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

What gives? While plagiarism is not a criminal offense, it seems taking credit for someone else’s work is a bigger threat to a journalist’s future than a serious felony conviction. As Fitzpatrick’s fall from grace reaches a new low with her recent ouster at Mount Mary, Abdul-Alim is thriving as a reporter and journalism instructor. A closer look at this curious tale of two reporters reveals that redemption may have as much to do with admitting mistakes as the nature of the offense.

Simply put, Fitzpatrick cheated on the job, never owned up to her mistakes and continues to suffer the consequences. By contrast, Abdul-Alim broke the law in his private life, never hid his conviction and was forgiven after paying his debt to society.

A respected fashion reporter who won acclaim for her firsthand accounts of the 2001 terrorist attacks while she was in New York, Fitzpatrick plagiarized an online story last June and got caught. Milwaukee Magazine and the Journal Sentinel, in separate investigations, then found several more stories by Fitzpatrick with attribution problems. By copying some sentences and passages word for word without using quotation marks or properly citing her sources, she violated the trust of readers and her bosses. Instead of coming clean to the public, however, newspaper officials and Fitzpatrick signed a confidential settlement that allowed her to resign quietly and get on with her life.

Or so she thought. The stigma of plagiarism can mark a reporter like a scarlet letter. Of course, the added stigma of a coverup doesn’t help.

Fitzpatrick learned this lesson the hard way when she tried to reinvent herself as a fashion instructor just as her journalism career was crumbling last summer. After years of using the faculty of Mount Mary’s fashion department as sources for her reporting, she applied for a teaching job. Then, on June 26, the Journal Sentinel published an “Editor’s Note” naming Fitzpatrick and detailing her first case of plagiarism. Editors promptly suspended her without pay pending further investigation.

That didn’t stop her from following through with her application to teach. And it also didn’t stop Mount Mary from hiring her despite clear evidence of plagiarism, normally as big a career killer in academia as it is in journalism.

How did she get the job? Fitzpatrick downplayed the situation as a “misunderstanding,” and they took her word for it, according to Toni Wulff, Mount Mary’s dean of faculty. “Someone is innocent until proven guilty,” says Wulff. “There were no facts of any kind.”

Actually, there were already plenty of facts available at the time, if school officials had bothered to investigate. They didn’t. A simple Google search could have uncovered the story she copied on the history of bikinis. “A background check wouldn’t have helped,” Wulff argues defiantly. “It was a matter of an accusation that was made and not proven.”

Perhaps if Journal Sentinel editors had immediately gone public with evidence of several more plagiarized stories by Fitzpatrick, Mount Mary could have avoided this embarrassing fiasco. Instead, Editor Marty Kaiser confronted Fitzpatrick with the additional evidence on July 11, signed a secret settlement with her on July 23 and printed a watered-down “correction” on August 3, featuring no mention of Fitzpatrick. To teach for the fall term, she would have signed a contract by August 1, school officials say.

It was only after Milwaukee Magazine published its investigation on Fitzpatrick (October 2003) that Mount Mary officials realized they had hired a plagiarist. “You were the ones who informed us,” says Sister Jane Forni, vice president for academic and student affairs. “If we had known, we wouldn’t have hired her.”

Adds Forni: “It is our intention not to offer her a new contract.”

Fitzpatrick did not respond to an interview request.

As for Abdul-Alim, he did jail time in 2001 after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge for criminal damage to property and a felony charge for fleeing an officer. Fully informed from the start, his editors wanted him back, and he was free to report again following a brief stint at the copy desk.

Within weeks of his release, Abdul-Alim was teaching his first journalism class at UWM. Professor David Pritchard, then Journalism Department chairman, says he hired Abdul-Alim based on his excellent reporting skills. His crimes were not committed on the job and his journalism career was intact, so this was not a disqualifying issue, says Pritchard.

“Jamaal admits he made mistakes,” says Pritchard. “His experience on both sides of the criminal justice system has been valuable to his teaching.” In fact, Abdul-Alim promptly disclosed his criminal record to the class and Pritchard set up a mock press conference where students quizzed him about the hire and wrote a news report on it.

Interestingly, Pritchard says he had no qualms about hiring a convicted felon, yet he won’t hire a plagiarist. “Would I hire Catherine Fitzpatrick? No,” Pritchard says flatly. “Plagiarism is unacceptable.”

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