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Public editor: What we need to do better Add to ...

We’ve already published a statement from The Globe and Mail’s editor in chief John Stackhouse in which he explains the disciplinary action taken against columnist Margaret Wente because she failed to live up to our journalistic standards.

As a result, I thought I would explain some of the lessons learned and advice to staff:

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For all reporters and writers:

1. Read The Globe and Mail’s code of conduct:

This is what it says on the matter:

Excerpts from other people’s prose must be attributed so as to avoid even a suspicion of copying. Although it is sometimes reasonable to adopt a few words without attribution (in a technical definition, for example), careful judgment is required. When in doubt, consult a senior editor.

Any extensive unacknowledged use of another’s words, structure or ideas may constitute plagiarism. Exception: Background from previously published Globe staff and news-service items may be recycled, verbatim or otherwise, without credit, although it is best to avoid borrowing someone’s distinctive prose style in doing so. News services must always be given credit for fresh information.

2. Reconsider your writing habits:

Don’t ever cut and paste someone else’s words and work over or around them. Only cut and paste something you intend to directly quote and attribute.

Don’t tweak or rewrite someone else’s thoughts without saying she/he said or noted.

Keep your notes straight on dates, attribution, direct quotes, etc. Write down every source you read or used in your notes (electronic or paper) on each story so your editor can discuss it with you.

If you want to explain someone else’s work, credit them first and early in the story.

Unlike online, which is more forgiving of using someone else’s idea and then linking to it, the print world isn’t and you have to credit right from the top.

You always want to be transparent with the reader on what your thoughts are and where you got other information from.

For editors:

1. Ask your writer about their sources.

2. If an idea seems very complex, technical or new to the writer, ask them where the idea came from and how much of it is attributed.

3. Question them on what should be in quotes and if there are paraphrases, how they should be identified.

4. Ask whether any press release material was used if you have any doubts.

For me:

1. Educate staff better on our rules of journalism through notes and examples.

2. Nothing is more urgent than a complaint of copying, but take your time to look into it properly. Tell readers at the first opportunity you are looking into it, but give the matter due diligence.

3. I erred in not being more forthright in saying that the work in this complaint was unacceptable and failed to meet Globe and Mail standards. It was not acceptable. In my haste to respond, my earlier blog post was not well considered. I didn’t have all the information I required to make a proper assessment last week and should have taken more time and probed more. For one thing, Ms. Wente said she did not recall reading a piece by the Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner or the other sources before writing the column. She now says she did read Mr. Gardner's article. Had I known that information at the time, I would have been much stronger in pointing out serious problems.

4. I should have referred to the blogger’s complaints, not the anonymous blogger. In the meantime, I have asked Carol Wainio if she wants me to refer to her by name and she said yes, so I will.

Our readers are very smart and hold us to account. I welcome all questions about errors or any lapses in our journalism. Please e-mail me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com.

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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