One of New Mexico’s top public radio stations is under investigation for allegations of plagiarism in its news stories, incidents that a former reporter says prompted him to leave the station.
Tristan Ahtone, who left his job as a public health reporter at the Albuquerque-based KUNM last month, tells SFR that he quit after bringing concerns about the incidents to his superiors for nearly a year. The incidents are detailed in a Feb. 4 mass email that Ahtone sent to several of his colleagues at the station and University of New Mexico, which operates the station. Recipients included News Director Elaine Baumgartel, Program Director Tristan Clum and KUNM reporter Deborah Martinez, who wrote the news stories in question. In the email, Ahtone writes that he’s “deeply concerned” that the radio station was ignoring “clear ethical violations within its newsroom.”
“Our ability to seek truth and report it is tainted because we have refused to hold our own reporters accountable,” he wrote, “as well as managers that should be taking the situation seriously.”
Meanwhile, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees federal funding for radio stations like KUNM, has launched an inquiry about what happened. CPB ombudsman Joel Kaplan has been conducting interviews with KUNM staff over the past few weeks. He’s aiming to release his report this week.
A publicly run radio station, KUNM serves central and Northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe and its surrounding areas. Most of the station’s funding comes from listener contributions and underwriting.
Though radio news programs are known for the “rip and read,” wherein they recap stories from daily newspapers and other sources, that’s different from passing off another writer’s work as their own locally produced original content. Ahtone says outright plagiarism at KUNM was tolerated for too long.
Ahtone’s mass communication cites three stories written by Martinez that contain several sentences copied and pasted from other news sources without attribution.
One example comes from an April 4, 2013 story that detailed new federal rules for health care navigators under the Affordable Care Act. The report is strikingly similar to a story published the day before by the Washington DC-based newspaper The Hill. Though the KUNM story opens with information that The Hill reported on the health care changes, Ahtone, in his email, takes issue with how it goes on to use no less than five sentences that appear to be copied and pasted directly from the The Hill story without attribution.
“I would estimate that approximately 80 [percent] of the story was copied and pasted from other sources,” Ahtone wrote.
University of Wisconsin professor Robert Drechsel, who directs the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics, says that the initial mentioning of The Hill news story in Martinez’ reporting isn’t sufficient enough attribution for her to use what comes later.
“It does seem undeniable that there is language that is borrowed in fairly wholesale fashion from one source or another [that’s] plugged into the stories,” Drechsel says.
The KUNM health care navigators story is not posted online, so it’s unclear if the station ever issued a clarification. Two of Martinez’ other stories cited in Ahtone’s email also feature copying and pasting from other sources without attribution, but KUNM ran a correction in both cases.
For example, one of Martinez’ stories about whooping cough that appeared on the website of KUNM partner Fronteras Desk now has a correction attributing the language she used to define the illness to the Mayo Clinic, which wasn’t cited in her original version of the story. But two more sentences that appear to have been cut from the Mayo website remain unchanged (see graphic below).
Last month, SFR sent Ahtone’s email to Kaplan, who often writes reports that hold public media accountable for mistakes, including a recent one that criticized a public radio station based out of Northern Arizona University for wrongly killing a story about a university donor.
He’s tells SFR that he can’t comment on his KUNM report other than to say that the plagiarism allegations are serious.
Martinez, for her part, says she’s ready to put the incidents behind her.
“I’ve earned four Associated Press awards over my decades-long broadcast career, producing hundreds of stories with the aim of telling the truth,” she writes in an email to SFR. “I made a mistake and was disciplined for it and KUNM and I now move forward with the same goal of informing the public in an open and honest way about news that affects them.”
She also previously worked as a spokeswoman under former Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration in two different state agencies.
In an April 11 email obtained by SFR, KUNM General Manager Richard Towne writes to Kaplan that Ahtone didn’t alert him about the plagiarism allegations until late 2013 and that he took “immediate action.”
The KUNM news office, which operates out of the University of New Mexico, referred SFR’s questions to UNM spokeswoman Carolyn Gonzales, who says the plagiarism issue has been solved and that KUMN adheres to ethical journalism principles.
“It went through the personnel issues needed to address the problem,” Gonzales says, adding that the situation is a personnel matter and cannot be discussed publicly.
Radio station staff were also required to attend five hours of journalism ethics training courses in February, online through the Poynter News University and with a UNM journalism instructor.
Drechsel, however, says the radio station should be more transparent about the situation, especially since not all sides of the story are being fully told. “Otherwise these things fester and fester and then when it comes out, everybody looks defensive,” he says.
“But clearly plagiarism is the cardinal sin in the context of a journalist,” Drechsel adds, “so it’s never anything to be taken lightly.”
Editor’s Note: SFR has periodically collaborated with KUNM, including on a reproductive rights story published last fall.
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The Hill's story published on April 3, 2013
Navigators cannot be paid by insurance companies, and they do not have to be licensed as agents or brokers. The healthcare law says each exchange must have entities certified as navigators, one of which must be a nonprofit.
KUNM's on air report the next day "New Federal Rules For Navigators Released"
The healthcare law says each exchange must have two entities certified as navigators. One of which must be a non-profit. Navigators cannot be paid by insurance companies, and they don’t have to be licensed by agents or brokers.
Mayo Clinic website
Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease. Now whooping cough primarily affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.
Fronteras Desk report, with no attribution
Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease. Now it mostly affects infants too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations, and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.
Read Ahtone's evidence of plagiarisim at KUNM below: