Suspended reporter returns to work as SF Chronicle concludes review

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Golden State Warriors beat reporter returned to work on Monday, nearly a month after the paper suspended him for copying a team press release in an article, according to the paper’s top editor.

The editor, Audrey Cooper, also announced the completion of an internal review that found “a handful” of other instances in which the Chronicle published language lifted from press releases.

The Warriors beat writer, Rusty Simmons, was suspended for an Oct. 12 online story about the NBA team’s efforts to move from Oakland into a new arena in San Francisco. It was a nearly verbatim copy of the team’s press release on its purchase of land for the arena.

A publicist for opponents of the arena project spotted the duplication and emailed a list of his contacts in the Bay Area. When the Chronicle’s editors found out, they replaced the story with a shorter version and an editor’s note.

In addition to the suspension, the paper began a review of Simmons’ work, and that of other sportswriters, to look for similar problems. The review, Cooper wrote in a memo to staff on Friday that she shared with CJR, “consisted of an independent researcher checking Chronicle content against every press release issued by Bay Area professional sports teams over a specific period of time.” Cooper said the review found “a handful of instances in which we published verbiage taken from press releases. These instances varied in severity.”

Cooper would not comment further, except to confirm Simmons’ return to the newsroom. Simmons declined to comment.

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It’s not clear, then, exactly how many stories lifted language, or whether any other action was taken. The sports site Deadspin previously identified five other stories under Simmons’ byline, and one written by a Chronicle sports editor, that appeared to include significant copying from Warriors press releases.

Cooper sat on a five-person committee that oversaw the review and decided upon disciplinary actions. The other members were Marty Nolan, a former Boston Globe opinion editor, and the Chronicle’s publisher, vice president of human resources, and opinion editor.

Cooper also told the staff that in January, the Chronicle will hold an ethics workshop with Ed Wasserman, a media ethicist and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Her memo is below:

Dear colleagues,

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about an incident in which we posted a breaking news story that turned out to be a lightly edited version of a press release. That incident prompted a review of some of our past work.

A steering committee was formed to oversee this independent review. The committee was made up of myself, Publisher Jeff Johnson, VP of Human Resources Renee Peterson, Opinion Editor John Diaz and Marty Nolan, the former opinion editor of the Boston Globe. Mr. Nolan oversaw and advised on the scope of the review, which consisted of an independent researcher checking Chronicle content against every press release issued by Bay Area professional sports teams over a specific period of time.

We found a handful of instances in which we published verbiage taken from press releases. These instances varied in severity. The steering committee met to review the researcher’s findings and discuss what, if any, disciplinary actions were appropriate.

During this time, another ethical concern surfaced regarding stories written for publications other than The Chronicle. Those issues have also been dealt with.

A few things to know about moving forward:

  • I am working with Ed Wasserman, a media ethicist and the dean of Cal’s journalism school, on plans to hold an ethics workshop here in January. Due to scheduling issues, this was the earliest we could do it. This training session/discussion will be mandatory for all newsroom employees. Expect more details to come.

  • It is never appropriate to use another person’s verbiage in a story. This practice violates our ethics policy.

  • All freelance assignments and other work outside of The Chronicle must be approved by your editor and me. This is also detailed in our ethics policy. While most outside jobs, including book deals, are perfectly appropriate, we need to be transparent about them. This rule will be applied equally to all newsroom departments.

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.