WILX Apologizes for Plagiarism of ELi Reporter’s Work

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019, 10:04 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher

Above: Chris Gray (photo by Raymond Holt)

The East Lansing stories we cover are often the type that would otherwise go totally unreported were it not for ELi. So, when I found out last week that a report published by WILX, Lansing’s NBC affiliate, had plagiarized an article by ELi’s government affairs reporter Chris Gray – making it look like they had paid to send a reporter to a meeting where they hadn’t – I was more than a little annoyed.

The subject of the plagiarized story was a December 4 vote by East Lansing’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to deny an appeal regarding marijuana sales. Like a lot of meetings around East Lansing, ZBA meetings are not recorded on video or broadcast. That’s why we send reporters.

Here’s the second sentence of Chris Gray’s report for us on the ZBA decision:

“Traverse City-based ABCD Properties, LLC, purchased the now-closed Oades Big Ten party store (above) at 1108 E. Grand River Ave. in 2018, hoping to turn it into a location for their marijuana business, Fresh Coast Provisioning.”

Here’s the second sentence of the WILX report by Sarah Clinkscales:

“Traverse City-based ABCD Properties, LLC, purchased the now-closed Oades Big Ten party store at 1108 E. Grand River Ave. in 2018, hoping to turn it into a location for their marijuana business, Fresh Coast Provisioning.”

Yes – exactly the same, except for the removal of the parenthetical “above,” which referred to our lead photo, by volunteer ELi photojournalist Raymond Holt.

Notably, whereas Chris’s article came to about 1,200 words and provided the kind of in-depth reporting our readers expect from us, Clinkscales’ article was only five sentences long.

Whereas Chris’s article got the story right, despite the plagiarism the super-short WILX article got it wrong, including in confusing a zoning appeal with a permit request, and confusing a medical marijuana provisioning center application with one for “a recreational pot shop.”

Alerted to the WILX report by an ELi reader, I contacted WILX looking for a correction of the errors, an acknowledgment of the plagiarism, and an apology.

WILX immediately removed the posted article. But it took three more days, several emails from me, and a phone call before Debbie Petersmark, Vice President and General Manager at WILX, finally wrote to apologize and to say, “The journalist involved in this story both misunderstood the story and, due to miscommunication within the station, was not aware of the source, which lead to East Lansing Info not being properly cited.”

Don’t get me wrong: we want other news organizations in this area to pick up on what we are reporting! We believe more people getting more news is better for everybody!

But we want the news to be accurate, and we want our reporters – not someone else – to get credit and payment for the work our reporters do.

If another news organization is going to use our work, we want credit. And when our sentences are lifted, we want them in quotation marks, with credit.

We appreciate that WILX’s leadership gets this. Imitation of Chris’s work may be the highest form of flattery, but flattery isn’t going to pay the rent.

Incidentally, while many of our reporters are citizen-journalists, Chris is a professional reporter. Among other jobs, before coming to Michigan he worked for six years in the Oregon State Capitol as a healthcare reporter for the Portland nonprofit news source, The Lund Report.

With your donated dollars, we’ve been paying Chris to bring comprehensive and compelling work. In just the last few weeks, Chris has reported for our readers on the latest Hub proposal at Planning Commission, the Public Works Director recommending a new $3.5 million sewer project, an MSU professor looking to engage students and other community members on development and design issues, new rules for solar panels in historic districts, the decision by Council to send the Lot 4 land sale (MSUFCU building) question to voters, and the need for more census workers in East Lansing.

Journalism all over America is suffering right now because of how the internet economy provides little economic support for nonpartisan reporters. If we’re going to keep local journalism alive, we have to make sure we all support great reporters.

Please, join me today in supporting ELi reporters like Chris Gray for the great work they’re doing. Make a financial contribution to ELi today while we have matching funds to double your support. We will keep doing nonpartisan, nonprofit, great work for you.

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