When I learned in October that Shaun King had been tapped to become a social justice columnist for the Daily News, I was thrilled, not only because I had admired his passionate writing for years but also because it was an early signal that newly appointed Editor-In-Chief Jim Rich intended to shake things up at a newspaper still reeling from deep layoffs.
From the outset, Shaun filed at an enviably frenetic pace, and because I worked an early shift that began at 5 a.m. — and because he was often already awake and churning out copy before shuffling his kids off to school — he and I had countless opportunities to chat, be it about his column, our children or his hometown Atlanta.
Over the course of roughly 150 columns, by my own back-of-the-envelope estimate, we developed a rhythm, rapport and friendship, and as I became more comfortable with his writing — about police brutality, politics and race in America, among other polarizing topics — I gradually learned how to tweak Shaun’s copy so that it essentially conformed to the News’ in-house style without altering his unique voice.
So it was with no small amount of shock that I learned on Tuesday the Daily Beast had leveled serious plagiarism accusations at Shaun regarding an exclusive story its reporter had published earlier that morning. Within a matter of hours after Shaun published his own column about Elliott Williams, a victim of neglect inside a Tulsa County jail, a large block of text — sans quotation marks or attribution — was discovered by the Daily Beast to be identical to two paragraphs from their own story. Rapidly, other news outlets pinpointed another example where blocks of text appeared identical to another report, again without quotation marks or citation.
This was my fault and I accept 100% of the blame.
Over the past 48 hours, as countless conspiracy theories have rippled across Twitter — many propagated by Shaun’s critics, whose hatred, I believe, boils down to either the color of his skin or the bluish-hue of his politics — it’s become clear that I need to share my side of this wildly blown-out-of-proportion story.
In all honesty, the controversy — a fuck up on my part, to put it bluntly — comes down to two unintentional, albeit inexcusable, instances of sloppy editing on my part and a formatting glitch that until Tuesday I had no idea was systematically stripping out large blocks of indented quotations each time I moved Shaun’s copy from an email to The News’ own Content Management System, or “CMS” as it’s called in media parlance.
In those two cases where no citation or hyperlink appeared in the column, I believe I likely cut attribution from the top of Shaun’s quoted text with the intention of pasting them back inside the block — only to get distracted with another of the many responsibilities I juggled as an editor. On any given day I was tasked with editing not only Shaun’s column but roughly 20 other news stories from five reporters, all of whom filed early and often. Add to that a whiplash-inducing crescendo of breaking news, a handful of administrative responsibilities and the chaos typical of most newsrooms, and it’s easier to fathom how frequently focus can snap from one second to the next. This is not an excuse, but here I take issue with Jim Rich’s assertion that these mistakes were “inexplicable.” They can happen easily if you’re not paying extreme attention to detail at every moment. Many of us in the news industry are increasingly under pressure to deliver an ever higher volume of stories with ever fewer resources and let’s just say, that doesn’t help. I don’t say that to absolve myself of blame, but to illustrate how this happened with no intention on my part to damage Shaun’s reputation or the paper’s.
Since this editing snafu broke — on social media but also in 35 media outlets, by my last count — I’ve been wracked with guilt. While I believe the statement issued by Jim as the story was still evolving cast more suspicion than necessary — and that my seven years of loyal service at the Daily News were dismissed haphazardly — he was right to act fast following a rapidly escalating embarrassment involving a lightning rod of a columnist, a description I believe Shaun would acknowledge and maybe even embrace. I’ll miss working with Shaun and all of my colleagues at the Daily News, a publication I have been proud to work for and am heartbroken to leave.
Finally, I want to personally apologize to Kate Briquelet of the Daily Beast and Rob Arthur and Jeff Asher of FiveThirtyEight.com for removing attribution and links to fantastic stories that Shaun originally cited. I absolutely did not mean to do that, and fundamentally believe that proper citation is crucial to upholding basic journalistic standards and ensuring transparency about the reporting process with readers. I am sorry.