Voice of America confirmed Friday that incidents of plagiarism have taken place at the network and that an internal review has been launched into how complaints of wrongdoing are handled.
The review was announced the day after The Washington Post reported that two former employees in VOA’s Africa division had raised complaints of plagiarism and editorial bias with supervisors and VOA’s standards editor that they said were not investigated in a timely manner.
The complaints alleged that a freelance journalist plagiarized content and that, separately, a producer for the television show Our Voices plagiarized parts of some scripts.
VOA has not named those involved in the complaints.
In an email to staff Friday, acting VOA Director Yolanda Lopez said management “regrets recent incidents.”
“An internal review is underway to assess the handling of this matter and to ensure that any future incidents will be dealt with promptly and appropriately,” Lopez said, adding that VOA is committed to ensuring plagiarism does not occur and that any future allegations are “dealt with promptly and appropriately.”
The email to staff included a revised copy of VOA’s policy on plagiarism.
In the case involving the freelance reporter, two articles on the English language website were updated this week to include an editor’s note alerting readers that an earlier version contained material that VOA has determined was plagiarized.
The complaints were raised by then-employees Jason Patinkin, a journalist in VOA’s English to Africa service, and Ayen Bior, a co-host of Our Voices who left VOA last year for a job at NPR.
Patinkin said in a published interview that he resigned from VOA over the network’s handling of his unrelated complaints that VOA was showing pro-Ethiopian government bias in its coverage of the conflict in Tigray.
The Horn of Africa service broadcasts to about 12 million people weekly in the Amharic, Afaan Oromoo and Tigrigna languages.
Steven Springer, VOA’s editor for news standards and best practices, said that the network had taken action on the allegations of plagiarism, and that such cases are rare.
“The fact that both of these incidents were put together in one place, yes, it seems like it’s an avalanche,” Springer said, adding that in almost 11 years in the position, he has “dealt with less than 10 possible cases.”
The former VOA employees mentioned in the Post article both said there had been a delay in VOA management handling the situation or taking action.
Springer said he makes his recommendations as quickly as possible after investigating allegations and reports back to the supervisors involved. But he can make only recommendations on the course of action.
“In the case of the Our Voices program, I felt like I did that very expediently. I feel like I did that within a matter of days,” Springer said. “It was one that when I saw it … my reaction was, ‘OK, I know what this is.’ And I reported back.”
His recommendation was that the scripts flagged did constitute plagiarism and that the supervisor should discuss the issue with those involved.
But according to the Post, the content first flagged by Bior in February 2020 remained online until May 25.
Springer confirmed that three episodes of Our Voices — from December 2018, and June and July 2019 — were removed from VOA’s website this week. A message appears in their place explaining the reason for their removal.
The acting director’s statement Friday did not give specifics about the incidents but said the internal review will assess how they were handled.
With the case of the freelancer, Springer said he had earlier recommended to the person overseeing the journalist’s work that the journalist not be used for radio reports because his “answers weren’t necessarily based on his own reporting. It was based on information he gleaned elsewhere.”
After that, complaints were later raised about the freelancer’s plagiarized content appearing in web articles.
A review of content the freelancer contributed to found two cases of plagiarized content. The freelancer is no longer used by VOA divisions.
Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, said having transparent policies on dealing with allegations of plagiarism is good for journalists as well as their audience.
“In most cases, plagiarism harms the journalists. It doesn’t harm the audience most of the time, assuming that the information is accurate and it also hasn’t been fabricated,” McBride said. “But in most cases, you can rectify the situation by adding in proper attribution and links to the original material. And it’s mostly embarrassing for the publication.”
“That solves most of the post-publication problems. I mean, you still have a problem with the individual” she said, adding that “some sort of discipline” is needed to send a message that plagiarism is wrong.
This story has been updated to clarify Patinkin’s reasons for leaving VOA.