Saturday, 1 December 2007

Uncle Bobby obit

Mark Bonokoski wrote a Toronto Sun column Friday on the importance of journalists and editors to get it right and the need for published corrections when they screw up.

In it, he mentioned a published Toronto Star correction regarding an incorrect page count for a book, which didn't get past dozens of readers.

A correction for a book's page count? Impressive.

On Saturday, the Star published a correction for an obit that ran in May - more than six months ago.

It seems Jim Bawden, the Star's TV columnist, lifted 1976 Toronto Sun content for his story about the death of Bobby Ash of CFTO's Uncle Bobby Show without attribution.

In ending one quote in the obit, Bawden simply said "Ash told an interviewer in 1976."

The Star's correction: "The May 24 obituary of Bobby Ash of the Uncle Bobby Show included improperly attributed information. Most of the information and quotations should have been attributed to an April 25, 1976, Toronto Sun article written by Theresa McConnell. The Star regrets the error."

The Star has set the bar high in demanding attribution for information and quotes lifted from other media.

We have all done it - used information and quotes from older stories published elsewhere without mentioning the newspaper or the reporter. We'd say the information was from "another newspaper" or he or she "told reporters."

On the Sun rewrite desk, city deskers would slap down a Star or Globe story near deadline and say "make it ours." So we made it ours with a quick rewrite and, if available, a brief new quote or new information.

We weren't alone. Thinly disguised Sun stories that scooped the competition would show up in the Star and Globe, thanks to their rewrite desk staffers working on deadline.

No questions asked. We all wanted to provide readers with the latest news - and, albeit, cover our asses.

Ethical? Some would say borderline. The Star, in 2007, is saying absolutely not, which is highly admirable if not 100% enforceable.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to using content previously published by other media and on the Internet?

Is one unattributed sentence or quote crossing the line? If so, the four major Toronto dailies would need full pages for corrections to make amends.

Newspapers setting the bar as high as the Star will have a lot of reporters, columnists and rewrite desk staffers looking over their shoulders in fear of sins of the past.

We haven't seen McConnell's original Sun story from 1976, so we don't know what percentage of Bawden's obit was lifted from the Sun. Perhaps he was much too liberal in his cutting and pasting and it has come back to bite him in the butt.

Perhaps he wasn't working on deadline and had ample time to research and write an obit using only information he obtained with calls and from Star morgue clippings.

And did editors question the source of Bawden's unattributed Uncle Bobby information in May, or was his "Ash told an interviewer in 1976" clearly acceptable?

What we'd like to know is who ratted on Bawden, one of our favourite TV writers, and why it took six months for his journalistic indiscretion to surface?

Who would remember the wording of a story from April of 1976?

Was it McConnell testing the Star's correction policy?

Was it the ghost of Uncle Bobby?

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