How did Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente put together her July 23 column on the dangers of cell phone use while driving? Well, it appears Wente may have helped herself to some uncredited reporting from the NYT, along with some structural and thematic ideas from Maureen Dowd.
Wente apparently lifted a quote from one NYT story, took reporting from two NYT stories, and seems to have borrowed her theme and approach from a recent Dowd column on the topic -- and stirred them into a column with no credit to the NYT for any of those elements, under her own byline.
The Globe and Mail is Canada's largest national daily newspaper, based in Toronto, and Wente has been a columnist there since 1999, according to Wikipedia. Wente's Wikipedia entry also describes her as a conservative who has written frequently about bringing an end to the monarchy in Canada.
It's standard for newspaper reporters -- and columnists -- to cite sources for all facts in their work. Wente's apparent failure to attribute the reporting in her column to the NYT reflects a violation of a basic journalism tenet. To quote the NYT's own Guidelines on Integrity:
When we use facts gathered by any other organization, we attribute them. This policy applies to material from newspapers, magazines, books and broadcasts, as well as news agencies like The Associated Press (for example, "the Senator told The Associated Press").
Wente's column borrows heavily from the NYT's coverage of the dangers both cell phone and driving and, more recently, texting -- and with virtually no credit given to the NYT for providing her source material.
For example: in the fourth paragraph of Wente's column, she uses a quote from Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah, a psychologist who has studied the dangers of cell phone use while driving. This is how Wente referenced Strayer's research:
“It's not that your hands aren't on the wheel,” says cognitive psychologist David Strayer. “It's that your mind is not on the road.” For years, he's been putting people in simulated driving situations to find out what happens when they're distracted. He's found that talking on a cellphone increases the chance of having an accident by about four times. That's about the same risk level as driving drunk.
But that quote from Dr. Strayer appears to have been taken directly from a January 19, 2009 "Well" column by NYT reporter Tara Parker-Pope:
“It’s not that your hands aren’t on the wheel,” said David Strayer, director of the Applied Cognition Laboratory at the University of Utah and a leading researcher on cellphone safety. “It’s that your mind is not on the road.”
Wente's description of Strayer's research -- in particular, his use of simulation experiments -- also appears to come in part from Parker-Pope's piece, where she describes them in some detail. Wente also drew information about Strayer for her column from information in Matt Richtel's outstanding page-one piece on July 19 about the dangers of texting and driving:
In a windowless room at the University of Utah, Professor Strayer has spent a decade studying driver distraction....Mr. Strayer’s research, showing that multitasking drivers are four times as likely to crash as people who are focused on driving, matches the findings of two studies, in Canada and in Australia, of drivers on actual roads.
Later in her column, Wente also cited the research of John Ratey of Harvard University, again repeating -- without attribution -- reporting on Ratey's work that appeared in Richtel's July 19 article, as well as in Dowd's column on July 22. From Wente's column:
We're too addicted. We're hopelessly dependent on our gadgets. We thrive on self-induced attention deficit disorder. Every time we phone or thumb or text or Twitter, we get what Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey calls a dopamine squirt.
From Richtel's article:
John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and a specialist on the science of attention, explained that when people use digital devices, they get a quick burst of adrenaline, “a dopamine squirt.” Without it, people grow bored with simpler activities like driving.
Dowd also referenced the Ratey research in her column, but attributed the reporting to Richtel:
As John Ratey, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who specializes in the science of attention, told The Times’s Matt Richtel for his chilling series, “Driven to Distraction,” using digital devices gives you “a dopamine squirt.”
The similarities to Dowd's column don't end with the Ratey reference. Indeed, Wente's column bears significant similarities to Dowd's column -- which ran a day earlier in the NYT in several respects. Dowd led her column with the recollection of using a cell phone and creating a dangerous driving situation, as did Wente's the next morning. Dowd constructed her lede around the idea that her cell phone use while driving was prompted by her relationship with her mother; Wente made a similar reference to her mother in her column the next day.
Dowd concluded her column by noting how unlikely it was that people would change their ways because of the dangers involved. Wente made the same point at the end of her column.
Left, literally, to our own devices, we spiral out of control....as our dealers know, we'll never disconnect.
The trouble is that the bandwidth available to us is infinite, but the bandwith of our brains is not.
Wente did not respond to an email yesterday from The NYTPicker seeking comment on the use of NYT reporting in her column. John Stackhouse, editor in chief of the Globe and Mail, also did not respond to an email requesting comment.
It should be noted that Wente's column did make a passing attribution to the NYT. She mentioned the recent disclosure of statistics about fatalities among cellphone-using drivers. "According to the New York Times," Wente wrote, "the research was depressed."
But that citation only calls attention to Wente's apparent failure to attribute the information in the rest of her column to the NYT.