Acknowledging mistakes is the best approach
Marshall Helmberger

This past week, we had to address an issue that had, quite frankly, never been on our radar before. This past Thursday, we received a phone call from Duluth News-Tribune Executive Editor Robin Washington alerting us that one of our reporters, Tom Klein, appeared to have used a few passages from a Duluth News-Tribune story on the Comet Theater, without attribution. That’s a violation of copyright and of journalistic ethics.

In reaction to the call, we examined the two stories, noted the similarities in a few phrases, and then conducted a review of Tom’s past work over the last two years. In that investigation, we found four other instances where it appeared Tom had used passages of background information from other media sources without proper attribution.

Tom, as his letter in this week’s paper indicates, acknowledges his error and accepts full responsibility for his lapses. We have taken steps to address this issue, including requiring that he send a letter of apology to the Duluth News-Tribune and to our readers. We are also acknowledging the lapse publicly and we have removed or edited the stories lacking proper attribution from our online archives. We have also discussed the issue with Tom and our other editors to recommend methods for avoiding such errors in the future.

As I stated earlier, this call was, for us, a bolt from the blue. While this is an issue that has plagued larger newsrooms across the country in recent years, we really didn’t think it was an issue we’d be confronting. This demonstrates that community weeklies are not immune.

We certainly would have rather avoided this entirely, but we never considered sweeping it under the rug once we became aware of the situation. We regularly call for transparency and accountability from others in prominent positions. We can hardly hold ourselves to a different standard when someone in our own organization errs.

That said, it should be noted that the handful of lapses we discovered in Tom’s work are rare exceptions, not the rule. No quotes were manufactured, nor was there any conscious effort on his part to mislead readers, only to further inform them. We know Tom to be a scrupulously honest individual, who would not intentionally claim credit for others’ work. This was basic carelessness, nothing more. We realize that Tom has a substantial workload, which may have contributed to the situation, and we’re exploring ways to address that concern as well.

As I told Tom this week, our intent in this situation is to fully air what took place, take steps to prevent it from happening again, and move on. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. Owning up to them, and learning from them, is the best way of responding to our inevitable lapses.

Despite this past week’s discovery, we maintain confidence in Tom as a reporter and editor who has dedicated himself to providing readers with a fair and accurate reflection of the events and issues affecting their communities— and he has well-earned respect for his efforts. We know that Tom takes his job and his role in the community seriously, and he’s anxious to put this behind him and get back to work. There’s just too much other news out there to report.

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1 comment on this item

As a community activist my entire life, and having worked with dozens of reporters in both the print and electronic media, I rank Tom right up there with the very best. This revelation and finding does nothing to change my respect for Tom, his reporting, his treatment of his sources and his readership. I am glad to have this over and weekly looking forward to Tom's excellent reporting of life in our neck of the woods. You are a good man Tom, wish there were more like you.

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