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Sloppy Editing Makes National News

Posted on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at 2:01 PM

CNN editors report on one writer's mishandling of quotes while they themselves offer a tenuous characterization of what happened.

By William Dunkerley

Editorial practices don't usually garner headlines nationally. But they did when David Clarke, the Milwaukee county sheriff, was rumored to be joining the Trump administration. CNN published an extensive analysis taking Clarke to task for his editorial handling of quoted material. The examples come from his master's thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School.

For Instance

One example cited by CNN is a quotation from professor Erik Dahl writing in Homeland Security Affairs journal. Here is Dahl's original statement:

"There is good news here: this domestic intelligence system appears to have been successful in increasing security within the US, as demonstrated by numerous foiled terrorist plots and the lack of another major successful attack on American soil since 9/11. But there is also bad news: these gains are coming at the cost of increasing domestic surveillance and at the risk of civil liberties."

Clarke handled it this way:

"The author writes that the domestic intelligence system appears to have been successful in increasing security within the U.S., but that the gains are coming at the cost of ever-increasing domestic surveillance and at the risk of civil liberties."

Clarke's text is followed by a footnote (Eric J. Dahl, "Domestic Intelligence Today: More Security but Less Liberty?" Homeland Security Affairs, [September 2011], https://hsdl.org/?view&did=691059.). But the absence of quotation marks makes it hard to differentiate Clarke's voice from that of Dahl. A paraphrase and a quote were mashed together. Clarke also gratuitously added emphasis to Dahl's reference to "increasing domestic surveillance" by calling it "ever-increasing domestic surveillance."

A Better Approach

Clarke would have better served his readers with:

"The author writes that the 'domestic intelligence system appears to have been successful in increasing security within the U.S., but that the 'gains are coming at the cost of increasing domestic surveillance and at the risk of civil liberties.' This cost is ever-increasing in this writer's view."

And More

In another passage Clarke writes:

"The war-fighting approach allows for the use of any and all means of intelligence gathering with little attention paid to safeguarding rights to privacy and other civil liberties."

He follows that with a footnote to the source. But it is instantly unclear to the reader whether this is a quote or a paraphrase. Here's what the source actually said:

"Moreover, this strategy allows for the use of any and all means of intelligence gathering without the need to safeguard rights to privacy or other civil liberties, as it usually targets noncitizens in the territory of foreign countries."

Clarke could have written:

"The war-fighting approach gives rise to what Nadav Morag calls 'the use of any and all means of intelligence gathering' while paying little attention to safeguarding 'rights to privacy and other civil liberties...'"

CNN's Exposé?

The CNN story cites almost 50 editorial transgressions by Clarke. Most seem to involve very sloppy adherence to standards in the use of quotes.

Why was that a national news story?

It is because CNN authors Andrew Kaczynski, Christopher Massie, and Nathan McDermott characterized Clarke's sloppiness as plagiarism. Their story was titled, "Sheriff David Clarke plagiarized portions of his master's thesis on homeland security."

So it was actually the accusation of plagiarism that propelled the story to the top, not the unprofessional use of quoted material that CNN's evidence supports.

CNN's Bad

In my view the authors went overboard with their allegation. Plagiarism is commonly understood to be presenting someone else's work as one's own. If that had been Clarke's intent he certainly would not have included footnotes to the sources. In reality his offense is limited to failing to follow accepted norms in quoting others.

I asked one of the sources cited in the CNN piece about this. He declined accusing Clarke of taking credit for his writings or that Clarke had distorted his meanings. In fact, he seemed dismayed that he had been drawn into this controversy.

The CNN authors' allegation of plagiarism is perhaps the most egregious part of this all. They are members of what CNN calls its "leading investigation team." If they are bent on distorting what they investigate, as seemingly evidenced here, it will be hard to trust the fruits of their future investigative revelations.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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