In late July/early August, members of this company began a comprehensive internal investigation into allegations of plagiarism leveled against Snopes Founder/CEO David Mikkelson after a journalist got in touch with us about his own research for a story.
The journalist, Dean Sterling Jones, shared with Snopes Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni more than two dozen examples of what appeared to be sentences or paragraphs from various news sites pasted into Snopes news stories without appropriate attribution. Most of the stories were published roughly between 2014 and 2016 under a generic “Snopes Staff” byline or under the defunct pseudonym “Jeff Zarronandia.”
The offending content was typically often aggregated “breaking” and “odd” stories on various subjects originally reported on by other news organizations. In his research, Jones said he also spoke with former employees, who alleged Mikkelson had sent memos to staff during that time that could be construed as him encouraging unethical reporting practices.
Marchionni contacted Snopes COO Vinny Green and the company’s outside human resource consultant, Mary Jo Ray, about how best to proceed. Upon informing Mikkelson of the allegations, Marchionni has had free rein to conduct an investigation into the issue. Mikkelson has been cooperating with the newsroom on all related efforts.
We want to thank Jones for his reporting. It’s an example of dogged, watchdog journalism we cherish. Our staff has moved quickly to fix the problem, and we now want to share with our community what we have done:
- Marchionni suspended Mikkelson from all editorial production pending a final outcome to the internal review and removed his access to our content management system, WordPress, for story production/publishing.
- Expanding on Jones’ findings for BuzzFeed, Green flagged all 140 news articles under the generic bylines for review and identified other possible issues beyond Buzzfeed’s findings.
- A staff reporter, who also works as an adjunct journalism professor, examined each flagged post for plagiarism. Marchionni then verified her initial findings with the help of plagiarism detection software.Our internal research so far has found a total of 54 stories Mikkelson published that used appropriated material, including all of the stories BuzzFeed shared with us.
- On Snopes.com, the offending content will be removed while the page itself will remain accessible. An editor’s note on each post will explain the source-attribution problem in the original story and link to the original news source(s) (Associated Press, ABC News, etc.) that should have been credited.
- We are in the process of archiving and retracting all of the offending stories, along with disabling any monetization features on those posts. We will attempt to contact each news outlet whose reporting we appropriated to issue an apology.
- The Snopes staff has embarked on a comprehensive review of the website’s archives, focusing initially on the author archives, to identify any other discrepancies or room for improvement.
- Marchionni is developing a comprehensive byline policy that answers any questions the community might have about how the generic “Snopes Staff” byline has been used in the past and how it is used today, among other issues.
- Marchionni is reevaluating decisions Mikkelson made years earlier to not allow Snopes stories to be archived on the Wayback Machine and is empowered to make any changes necessary.
Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop. It has no place in any context within this organization. We invite readers to let us know here if they find any other examples of plagiarized content so that we can apply the same treatment as above.
We talk often in the newsroom about the priceless value of reputation — that we are worth no more than the credibility we maintain with our community. Our reputation is dependent on our ability to get things right, and more importantly, to quickly correct the record when we are wrong. We are committed to a lifetime of atonement through the rigorous pursuit of the facts, especially in scenarios such as this.
To the staff, past, present, and future, who are undoubtedly impacted by these findings, we are deeply sorry. While an individual’s actions have caused this breach of our ethics, we hope the extraordinary writers and editors who work at Snopes do not see their efforts and reputation undermined by these missteps. We can say without hesitation they are among the most gifted, dedicated, and brightest employees we have ever had the honor to work with, and we learn from them daily.
— Doreen Marchionni, vice president of editorial/managing editor Snopes.com
— Vinny Green, chief operations officer for Snopes Media Group