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A small step to uphold our contract of trust

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In journalism lore, names like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke carry their own special chill. All three are writers who reached the pinnacles of success in this business -- only to become tainted with scandal when their work was found to include significant plagiarism or outright fabrications, violations of the trust that forms the very underpinning of our vocation.

We often console ourselves with the observation that incidents like these are consigned to the past -- Cooke's "Jimmy's World" invention is more than 30 years old, after all -- and that their rarity is belied by their sensational notoriety.

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But such handy comforts notwithstanding, it's hard to discount what Poynter Institute adjunct faculty member and media blogger Craig Silverman dubbed the "Summer of Sin." That would be the summer of 2012, during which Silverman accumulated a litany of at least 17 violations from across the country -- and this among a list of at least 30 offenses for the entire year.

Particularly worrisome for many of us in the press? The preponderance of offenses Silverman collected came from print publications. We traditional publishers rightly emphasize that one of the primary advantages we maintain over the host of here-today-gone-tomorrow bloggers and aggregators capitalizing on the ease of Web publishing is a well-earned reputation for standards of research, reporting and attribution. When the support for that reputation is tarnished by so many wrongs from within our own ranks, we know it's time to take notice.

Silverman in fact called for creation of clearer guidelines on plagiarism and fabrication and stronger efforts to identify wrongdoing and increase awareness of it. Daily Herald Deputy Managing Editor for Digital Operations Teresa Schmedding heard it, and, as president of the American Copy Editors Society, pulled together a unique coalition of top news associations to study the issue and produce a response.

The result of their work was a journalistic "Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication" held in St. Louis last week, accompanied by publication of an e-book, "Telling the Truth and Nothing But", which you can download for free from the Reynolds Journalism Institute website at http://www.rjionline.org/newsbooks/catalog. The report is the work of 23 educators, writers and editors (I among them, full disclosure, though in a minor role) from at least 10 major organizations, and it hopes to initiate a broader conversation about the dangers fabrication and plagiarism pose to our industry and to the public trust that is so critical to the health not just of our industry but of the democracy we seek to promote and support.

The book chronicles dozens of low- and high-profile incidents dating back to Cooke's 1980 scandal but as recent as two plagiarism cases in a major Canadian newspaper in January. It identifies causes for plagiarism and lays the groundwork for more standard responses news organizations can consider.

Perspective is important, of course. As Poynter's Roy Peter Clark also has observed, 30 violations amid the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of articles written over the past year hardly qualifies as a plagiarism plague. But every disease also must be boldly confronted, especially one with consequences that are so potentially devastating. To that end, "Telling the Truth and Nothing But" at least may help in a small way to emphasize the commitment to trust that news organizations must make.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor for the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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