Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente held to account under ‘digital’ microscope for alleged plagiarism

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News Writer
Daily Brew

The Globe and Mail has disciplined one of its veteran columnists over plagiarism allegations.

"Over the past several days, serious allegations have been raised about the work of one of our columnists, Margaret Wente. Many of the concerns centre on a July 2009 column, and similarities in quotes in that work to those in a column already published in another newspaper," read an internal note from Globe editor John Stackhouse.

"The journalism in this instance did not meet the standards of the Globe and Mail, in terms of sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others. Even in the spirit of column writing, which allows for some latitude in attribution and expression, this work was not in accordance with our code of conduct, and is unacceptable."

Carol Wainio, a visual-arts professor at the University of Ottawa, accused Wente of plagiarism on her website, Media Culpa. She listed a 2009 article in in which Wente appears to have used phrases or sentences similar to an existing work without properly attributing the original source.

Read Wanio's accusations here.

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Wente, who writes three columns a week for the paper, addressed the controversy in her latest column, admitting to "careless" writing when she copied a sentence from a column in the Ottawa Citizen in 2009.

"I'm far from perfect," she defended. "I make mistakes. But I'm not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don't like what I write."

In her psuedo-apology, Wente emphasized that she is a frequent target of the accuser.

Writers know that plagiarism is unethical, illegal and an all-around bad idea. You will get caught. In a digital world, readers have access to the same stories and sources writers are looking at while they write. They have access to plagiarism-detecting software. And they have access to blogging platforms and social media to "out" sloppy writers.

It's an intimidating accountability system — and Wente knows it.

"Journalists know they're under the microscope," she wrote in her column. "If you appropriate other people's work, you're going to get nailed. Even so, sometimes we slip up. That isn't an excuse. It's just the way it is."

Sabrina Maddeaux of the Toronto Standard argued that journalism's recent shift from content to ad-revenue-driven numbers has hurt the quality of writer's work:

"It's about being the first to pontificate about an issue, the first to publish those photos, and the hopeless pursuit of beating Twitter to the scoop on just about anything. This has all inevitably led to a lot of embarrassingly bad journalism and, probably, a lot more plagiarism and other ethically-questionable-meets-sloppy conduct than we dare guess," she wrote.

The Globe and Mail is not sharing the details of the disciplinary action against Wente, but did note that she will continue to write for the paper.

According to the Canadian Press, a memo to Globe staff from the editor-in-chief instructed that, in an effort to maintain high journalistic standards, the public editor should now directly report to the publisher, making her fully autonomous from the newsroom.

The Globe and Mail's own story about the investigation admitted to unanswered questions:

"While the Globe's public editor issued a statement Friday, it didn't answer many of the questions raised in the blog or address any disciplinary action taken by the paper."

The National Post's Chris Selley called the Globe's public editor's response to the accusations a "train wreck," diminishing the seriousness of the situation — and essentially dismissing the accuser as an "anonymous blogger."

After double-checking Wanio's accusations against the articles in question and finding concerning things that "might well get your fired, in a more rigorous and self-respecting environment," Selley concluded:

"Margaret Wente seems to have been caught flagrantly plagiarizing two separate sources, and the Globe's public editor either hasn't realized the extent of the problem — she certainly hasn't offered an alternative explanation for the matching wordings, not that I can think of one — or doesn't much care."

The plagiarism story made headlines across the pond. The Guardian's Roy Greenslade used Wente's situation as an example of journalism-gone-wrong: "One of the great virtues of the net is that mainstream journalists can now be held to account for their work. Plagiarism has never been easier to illustrate."

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