Delving into Steve Penn's lawsuit against The Kansas City Star.

What does Steve Penn's lawsuit tell us about the Star

Delving into Steve Penn's lawsuit against The Kansas City Star.

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That ethical assessment is backed up by George Kennedy — a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Kennedy, the author of several journalism instructional texts, tells The Pitch: "I can't think of any justification for passing someone else's work off as your own, even a press release."

And Margaret Duffy, chairwoman of the strategic communications faculty at MU's J-School — who probably taught a lot of the people sending Penn those releases — disagrees with Penn's claim about an industrywide expectation that press releases materialize unedited in newspaper columns. "Clearly there are PR practitioners who would disagree [with me], who would say, 'Woohoo! Use my release, use my stuff with your byline on it,' " she says. "But I think it tends to undermine credibility and trust in a news organization, and that's a big enough problem already in my opinion."

Details about whether and how often press releases end up parroted in the local daily may not matter to the average reader. But public crucifixions such as Penn's are a fixture in the journalism industry, where ethics are regulated not by any licensing system but rather by the profession's cultlike credo of independence and transparency. Enforcement for the violation of those norms typically consists of shamefests sparked on media blogs such as poynter.org and jimromenesko.com; think Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Ethics aside, though, Penn's lawsuit may be doomed if he can't prove that the Star's management was privately telling him to do one thing while the paper very publicly said its policy was to do something else.

On June 22, 2003, after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal at The New York Times, the Star's then-editor, Mark Zieman, posted the KC paper's full ethics policy on its website. He wrote in an accompanying column: "All staff members are required to read it and abide by it." According to that policy, as quoted by The Pitch in 2003 — and which remains unchanged today — the Star's official stance on plagiarism is unambiguous: "Do not borrow the work of others. Plagiarism includes the wholesale lifting of someone else's writing, research or original concepts without attribution."

Penn's attorney argues that a silent exception exists for news releases and that the Star's plagiarism policy was "vague." Indeed, as then-Pitch editor C.J. Janovy noted about the policy in 2003, "What it doesn't spell out is what happens to someone who would do something so dumb," which is where internal politics at the paper come in. Janovy was referring to a 2002 incident in which Glenn E. Rice, a reporter for the Star, got busted copying whole paragraphs of a jazz concert review from another review in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, newspaper. As would later happen with Penn, the paper implied that Rice's plagiarism was not an isolated occurrence. "Our examination of Glenn's music coverage revealed serious problems that had to be addressed," Zieman said in an ensuing Star story.

But unlike the Penn case, those problems were not explained further to the public. Furthermore, Rice — who is also black — was disciplined rather than terminated.

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