Yesterday afternoon, NBC News offered a curious statement regarding the discovery of plagiarism by one of its reporters. Initially, that’s all NBC disclosed — not the articles, not the name of the reporter, and not actions taken to deal with the plagiarism, if any.
Later in the day, though, NBC updated its press release with links to all eleven of the reports that required corrections. They didn’t identify the reporter, but it didn’t take long to connect the dots. The New York Post also got a source within NBC News to confirm, apparently:
The note to readers did not name the reporter. But a source within the outlet told The Post that the reporter was Teaganne Finn, who joined NBC News last June to cover politics after a stint at Bloomberg.
The source confirmed that Finn is no longer with NBC News, though it’s unclear if she was fired or resigned.
Finn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The source at NBC News said editors first noticed an unattributed passage in one article with Finn’s byline during what was described as a routine editing process. The outlet found more examples of plagiarism after a more thorough review.
NBC News has since added an editor’s note to all 11 articles, which were published between over a period stretching from last September to as recently as February. The notes say that the articles contained passages that fell short of editorial standards, which have been removed from the original text.
First off, let’s be clear what the actual “crime” here is. There isn’t any suggestion of fabulism, ie, making up stories and passing them off as factual. Finn isn’t being accused of becoming the next Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. This is, at least according to NBC, strictly an issue of lifting others’ material and passing it off as her own. That’s bad, but it’s not as bad as Glass or Blair.
Finn’s work is also nowhere near as interesting either. Finn’s oeuvre seems pretty clear from the limited sample of her work; none of it looks like particularly deep or scoop-ish topics. Much of it looks like a kind of headline-expansion genre, a bread-and-butter task for large online news sites. Here are the headlines in question, with links available in the NBC statement:
- Democratic group launches super PAC to counter election deniers running for office
- Democratic lawmakers not giving up on child tax credit, betting on Manchin’s support
- Farmers flourish under Biden, see recovery from Trump-era trade wars
- Jan. 6 panel reaches deal with White House to defer some document requests
- The most consequential votes Congress took in 2021
- Trump renews praise for Covid vaccines, ‘one of the greatest achievements of mankind’
- DeSantis pushes bill targeting critical race theory in schools
- Trump’s trade war payments to farmers needed more oversight, watchdog says
- Sen. Kyrsten Sinema denounces immigration activists who followed her into restroom
- Gen. Milley says he wasn’t trying to undermine Trump in China call
- Republicans keen on hammering Biden on inflation as the White House projects hike
Assuming this list is indicative of Finn’s coverage, two points emerge from it. First, it parallels NBC’s own editorial biases pretty well — so well, in fact, that it seems amazing that they bothered to notice anything amiss with Finn’s work. In this instance, the editorial process caught the problem relatively soon, especially given the forgettable content involved.
Second, the topics are so mundane and superficial that it’s tough to understand why Finn needed to supplement her work with uncredited sources and the work of others. How difficult is it to write about Milley’s testimony from the source material, after all, or Sinema’s denunciations? Both of those occurred on camera. The Manchinwatch stuff is similarly ubiquitous. If Finn was lifting material without attribution to file reports on those topics, then not only should she be fired but perhaps she owes NBC a refund for hours not actually worked, too.
On the other hand, though, the workload for this kind of headline-expansion task is likely enormous. Those of us who work in the analytical/criticism sector of journalism are used to links and attributions, as block quotes and citations are a key part of our process — especially in criticism. News outlets like NBC want all of their reporting to be original, except that republished from wire services — and furthermore, their consumers expect that too. And it’s absolutely a reasonable requirement, as long as NBC News is willing to pay someone enough to produce it in the quantity required.
It almost seems like Finn tried to blur the line between the two, and discovered belatedly that the line exists for a reason. It’s still a firing offense, but it needn’t carry a journalistic death penalty. Especially not these days, when mainstream media outlets have much bigger issues with credibility than a lazy or overworked reporter cutting corners on production rather than truth and context. If Finn learns her lesson (the hard way), she’ll be back. In the meantime, maybe news media outlets such as NBC News can refrain on regurgitation and narratives, and focus more on honest and meaningful reporting.
Update: I changed “fired” in the headline to the less-specific “terminated.” It’s not clear yet that Finn was fired, but it’s certainly a firing offense.