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Carol, Do You Copy? Vogel’s Sticky Wiki

Carol Vogel's research tool

Carol Vogel’s research tool

By now you’ve likely heard that Carol Vogel, the NY Times‘ veteran art reporter, got caught with her hand in the wiki jar. As I tweeted below, I wasn’t sure which of her lame moves was more irresponsible—plagiarizing from Wikipedia or relying on that frequently inaccurate, crowd-sourced compendium for journalistic research:

The thoughts I expressed Tuesday (in the last tweet) on how the Times’s arbiters of journalistic standards would likely handle Vogel’s non-attributed Wikipedia description of Piero di Cosimo‘s eccentricities were echoed Wednesday by Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, who wrote this:

It seems to me that there can be little dispute about the [plagiarism] claim, which was initially reported by MediaBistro’s FishbowlNY. Anyone can see the similarity. The question now is whether this is an isolated case or one of many instances. The Times is taking that question seriously….

An isolated instance of rewriting Wikipedia is not, in my opinion, a firing offense. Something like that probably warrants a written warning or a short suspension….But a widespread pattern is a different matter altogether—other possible instances have been pointed out at the website ARTnews. I’ll update this post when I know more.

I have read all the ARTnews examples of supposed infractions and do not regard any of them as particularly problematic. I think that rival journalists who, for various reasons, have it in for Carol are eager to find ways of twisting the knife. Like it or not, Vogel’s byline will likely live on at the Times. But I do believe that the paper’s weekly “Inside Art” column should be handed over to a more energetic, enterprising reporter who regularly scores scoops the old-fashioned way—by earning them, rather than having them spoonfed before the information is released to equally deserving journalists.

The Times’ mop-up crew hasn’t yet entirely cleaned up the Vogel mess: They now need to address the shortcomings of the editors’ note that accompanies Carol’s piece. As it now stands, the Piero di Cosimo item (about an upcoming show at the National Gallery, Washington) has a substantially new lede, replacing the offending one. But the editor’s note fails to explicitly mention this change in wording.

Here’s Vogel’s original (or not-so-original) verbiage:

Artists can be eccentric, but the quirks of the Italian Renaissance master Piero di Cosimo are legendary. He is said to have been terrified of thunderstorms and so pyrophobic that he rarely cooked his food, subsisting mostly on hard-boiled eggs that he prepared 50 at a time while heating glue for his art. He didn’t clean his studio. He didn’t trim the trees in his orchard. Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance biographer, described Piero as living “more like a beast than a man.”

Here’s the new version:

Artists can be eccentric, but the quirks of the Italian Renaissance master Piero di Cosimo were extreme. He refused to allow his rooms to be cleaned or his fig trees to be pruned, living more like a beast than a man, according to the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari. He hated the sounds of coughing men, ringing bells and chanting friars, Vasari wrote.

And here’s the editors’ note about what happened:

The “Inside Art” column on July 25, about a planned exhibition of the works of the Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo, started with a description of the artist’s life and eccentricities. That passage improperly used specific language and details from a Wikipedia article without attribution; it should not have been published in that form. (Editors learned of the problem after publication from a post on FishbowlNY.)

What the editors neglected to mention is that the first paragraph, as it now appears in the online version, is no longer “published in that form” (i.e., plagiarized—a word forthrightly used by Sullivan in her blog post, but tactfully avoided in the editors’ note). As you can see, above, the piece’s introduction has been substantially rewritten from the what had appeared in Friday’s hardcopy. This needs to be explicitly stated.

And while they’re at it, how about a policy statement discouraging reliance on Wikipedia as an “authority,” whether “properly” attributed or not?

an ArtsJournal blog