Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

A post long overdue

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The world of Mizzou journalism has been shaken up by an instance of plagiarism from the most unlikely source: a professor emeritus at a school that calls itself the premiere journalism institution in the world. Ouch.
I am not personally very familiar with the works of John Merrill. As an 83-year-old emeritus, he’s not seen around the school much, but I know he has been the mentor of the previous generation of Mizzou grads. Alumni kept exchanging back on the Mizzoumafia listserv, alternately lauding or blaming Merrill.

For background, here’s the story. A reporter at the Maneater, MU’s student newspaper, noticed that Merrill had used several quotes from her own article in his Missourian column, without attribution to her or the Maneater. She brought it to the attention of Tom Warhover, our executive editor, who decided to quit running Merrill’s column after editors at the Missourian discovered 5 more instances of quotes taken from other publications without attribution. Tom announced the whole thing quite frankly in his regular column in the Weekend Missourian.

Mr. Merrill said he didn’t mean to not attribute and simply forgot before sending in his copy. I’d tend to give him the benefit of the doubt for his reputation and legacy in journalism. Several people in the Mizzou mafia argued last week that it wasn’t such a big deal because we don’t have the same expectations of attribution for columnists as for reporters. But, as I put it to the listserv last week, it’s one of two things.
1) Either columnists don’t indeed need to attribute like a reporter, and that’s what Mr. Merrill should explain to us, rather than accept the blame and the punishment.
2) Or, and that’s my opinion, any quote taken from an outside publication should be attributed to that publication. It wouldn’t have bothered me if it had been quotes from the Missourian; we’re all a team here, and it’s expected. When one reporter does a follow-up story, they might use info from the previous story. If reused, quotes would be followed by the mention “said in previous Missourian reports,” out of fairness to the reader. Forgetting that would have been minor. But not attributing to the Maneater is stealing their work and livelihood, however small it is at a campus newspaper.
As for calling the whole thing a mistake, I’d be tempted to agree, had it not happened 6 times.

Was Mr. Merrill punished too hardly? Maybe so. I honestly feel for the man, who has done a great deal for this school and its students. I dare hope that this will not affect his stellar reputation in the long run; the listserv has already forgotten all about this, and I’m probably one of the last bloggers to even mention it.
But we can’t forget that the Missourian is a teaching newspaper. Some alumni have argued that it doesn’t even make sense that professors would publish columns in it. Why not let advanced students take a shot at column writing? A few reactions I’ve heard from students were to this effect: “If we’d done it, we would have failed the class immediately. So why shouldn’t he lose his column?” What can you say to that, as a teacher?

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Written by Isabelle Roughol

Tuesday, 20 November, 2007 at 06:47

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