The Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton said the paper must curb the plagiarism that has found it way into its pages four times since he became its in-house watchdog nearly two years ago.
His public comments came a day after the paper suspended Mexico bureau chief William Booth for lifting four sentences without sourcing them to a recent academic journal article. Booth was suspended for three months without pay, the Post reported Friday in an article detailing the incident.
"This is the third column I have written about plagiarism at the Post since I began as ombudsman, and there was a fourth case last September, while I was away, that I neglected," Pexton, who was named ombudsman in February 2011, wrote. "This indicates a problem that The Post needs to address, not just after the fact but also before it. The Post's standards on this point are clear; they're not at fault. They call plagiarism 'one of journalism's unforgivable sins.'"
He suggested that the Post could begin firing staffers for first-time plagiarism offenses, but said that zero-tolerance policies are rarely effective.
"Should we just throw up our hands and blame it on new technologies that make vast tracts of information easily available for instant cutting and pasting?" he said. "I'm not buying it."
Booth, a well-respected veteran of the Post's staff, copied four lines from an article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives by University of Southern California professor Andrea Hricko, who Pexton said sent him and other Post editors side-by-side comparisons of her and Booth's sentences two days after the story was printed. Of the five passages she believed he plagiarized, the Post concluded that four were copied and took swift action.
New executive editor Martin Baron and Booth wrote separate personal letters of apology to Hricko, who told TheWrap on Thursday that she felt the paper "acted with integrity and responsibility."
Booth called the ethical breach a "very serious lapse" but said in a public apology, released by the Post, that it was accidental.
His story, which ran on A1 of the Sunday, Dec. 13 paper, described the expansion of the Panama Canal and the need for larger cargo ships.
The Post on Friday provided examples of the stolen material. In them, Booth appeared to have altered the sentences and changed certain clauses, but the resemblance is apparent.