This week's column by Ctein
I am observing an unpleasant amount of "shoot the messenger" conversation going on around the subject of Paolo Pellegrin's professional lapses in his "Crescent, Rochester" series. What it mostly seems to boil down to is the idea that Michael Shaw was in some way obligated to provide Pellegrin with a forum to rebut his (Shaw's) article.
He was not. Not even if one considers the original piece to be straight reporting, and I don't think it's even close to that: You can call it analysis, commentary, opinion, or editorial, whatever you want*, but it is not a simple news article whether or not it includes newsy facts. In any case, that does not matter. The reason it is customary for reporters to contact the subject of an article is to make sure they haven't gotten any facts wrong. It is not because the subject is entitled to a forum in their article, and it is in no way about giving them free rein to spin their version.
Yes, it may be considered a courtesy to contact them, but it is done out of prudence, to "cover one's ass." And, sometimes, it is not done out of prudence, if you have reason to think the subject of your article will attempt a preemptive counterstrike. When a piece is not pure reporting, as Shaw's isn't, it's frequently not even customary. In no circumstance is it obligatory.
By the rules of the business he's in, Shaw did nothing wrong. Had he managed to get his facts wrong by failing to contact Pellegrin, then Pellegrin would be entitled to cry foul. He didn't. He accurately described three main points:
1. The caption was, in fact, incorrect and misleading about the subject. By journalistic standards, it was a minor bit of sloppiness, regardless of how the subject of the photo feels about it—honestly, this isn't about him. But it was, nonetheless, wrong.
2. More seriously, the location is falsified in a way that is materially important. That's a much more substantial lapse. That Pellegrin doesn't acknowledge that is troublesome. His response boils down to, "Well, I didn't explicitly say the photo was made in the Crescent, and besides I don't actually remember where it was made, and besides, who knows what the Crescent really means anyway?" That's a huge load of bullshit. It would be lame coming from a politician. It's unacceptable from anyone who practices journalism. And here again, Shaw's article is factually correct.
3. The real damning bit is the plagiarism. There's been a lot of obfuscation written about this—who really submitted it, was the material meant for publication or not, etc., etc. I quote Pellegrin: "The background text, which traditionally would be for internal uses, and not for the public, is something I gathered from various sources in Rochester and from the internet, including the New York Times."
Okay, so it is Pellegrin's text, and Shaw is factually correct about that also. Pellegrin's copy is almost word-for-word identical to the New York Times. The most that Pellegrin might be able to do (and he doesn't) is show that he pulled all the material from third-party sources, and even then he's still saddled with the problem of having presented someone else's writing as his own.
That is a major no-no, and he knows it. Not just in the field of journalism, though it's especially bad there. You don't do that. Not ever. Not for internal use or for publication. It is plagiarism, plain and simple.
As for Pellegrin's very weak defense that the text wasn't meant for publication, and that he expected editors to rewrite it before using it, that doesn't negate the plagiarism charge. The kindest word I can use for that is "disingenuous." If Pellegrin expected the editors to rewrite his material, that only means he expected to not get caught out in his plagiarism.
Editors and reporters usually rewrite that kind of copy before running it, as matters of space and style if nothing else. But the rules and custom of the business are that if someone sends you a press kit (defining that in the loosest terms), it's for publication and it only contains material that the sender owns and has permission to submit for republication. Unless Pellegrin demonstrates that the material was a.) clearly labeled "not for publication" and b.) clearly labeled as attributable to other sources, he's in the wrong. This is not even close to a judgment call.
From the perspective of professional journalism, Pellegrin's defense is a complete fail. It may very well play well to a lay public, appealing to emotions and inapplicable concepts of what constitutes "fair play" and muddying the discussion with diversionary tactics. Politically it's a sound approach; it's worked for many a candidate running for office. It is neither correct nor appropriate for a journalist.
The best thing Pellegrin could do in this circumstance, professionally, would be to fall on his sword and hope he would only suffer minor paper cuts (likely that is all that would happen). That he took the approach he did is disturbing.
As for Shaw, he got it right. There were several places where he could have easily gotten facts wrong. I think he made some educated guesswork and supposition (e.g., who actually inserted the text that accompanied the photograph), and that is risky. As I said at the beginning, that is why one frequently contacts the subject. But Shaw, in fact, got it right, and when the prose finally hits the page that is all that counts.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
[*Shaw himself said he's a media critic, meaning he'd call it a critique, presumably. —Ed.]
Ctein's weekly column appears on TOP on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Stan B.: "The man's a brilliant photographer, one who has repeatedly put himself on the line and gone the extra mile. He got lazy on this one, cut corners. Fortunately, someone was awake and called him on it; and that's a good thing, both for his profession and for us. Ultimately, it's also good for Mr. Pellegrin—a major wake-up call to remain true to his chosen, professional code of conduct."
Sarge: "Coming from someone who calls himself 'a lousy critic,' this column is a fine piece of disambiguation. Op-Ed should be in another section. I think the category 'Legal and social issues' under which Ctein's column is filed, is TOP's equivalent of an Op-Ed section. Or should there be a separate, categorical Op-Ed section to warn off Moose [who, in a comment, objected to the subject of this column —Ed.] and like-minded readers?"
The Editor replies: This is a blog. We post about all sorts of topics. I am a bit perplexed that Moose reads this site and thinks this controversy has less to do with photography than a post about technique might; that would definitely not be my ordering of priorities. However, that doesn't even matter. If anyone doesn't like a particular post, he or she may simply choose to not read it. There is no penalty for skipping. There will be no test.
TOP is a buffet: help yourself to what appeals to you, pass on what doesn't.
Mark Alan Miller: "My biggest problem is not just that Pellegrin fudged the location and plagiarized his caption, it's that he, a photojournalist, did not report on what he found in the Crescent, as assigned, but instead went elsewhere to find what he wanted, a white gun fan who could be made look like a scary nut case. Have him grab his gun and drape himself in cartridges and get him to pose in a seedy-looking location (really just a garage), with a bit of dramatic lighting to push the message across. A little creative captioning later and the Crescent had an ex-Marine sniper who looked liable to break out in comic book, whoop-ass vigilantism at the least provocation. Am I reading too much meaning into it? The dude in his patriotic T-shirt with shotgun at the ready is a walking action movie/video game stereotype. Pellegrin knows it as well as we do. My problem with Pellegrin is that he created this image from the ground up. This ex-Marine sniper is not to be found on the streets of the Crescent. Actor, role, set, props, none of these are what Pellegrin purported them to be. He didn't just report badly, he passed off creative writing as journalism. And plagiarized part of it."
Brett: "The biggest failing for me, a journalist by training, is that Pellegrin didn't seem to even know where he was when he took that staged photo of the student/former Marine with the gun. If he didn't even understand the story, how could he report it accurately? His follow-up explanation that he was trying to reflect gun culture elsewhere in the city didn't ring true to me. That wasn't reflected in the caption.
"I think this exposes one big flaw when photojournalists parachute into an area and try to understand it. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. Given the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the like, it's no wonder that we're seeing more grass-roots photojournalism from people who actually live in a given place. Sometimes they have their own agendas, it's true, but by and large I think they will be able to more accurately report their surroundings than could a person like Pellegrin, no matter how talented and dedicated."