Audit Exposes Problems in Albom Columns

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A review of more than 600 columns by Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom (search) turned up no pattern of inaccuracies but did find the best-selling author sometimes used quotes from other news outlets without credit, the paper reported Monday.

The review — the results of which were printed on Monday's front page and two full pages inside — found that other Free Press columnists also have failed to give credit for quotes gathered by other news organizations.

Carole Leigh Hutton (search), publisher and editor, said the problems reflect a lack of familiarity with the paper's rules on attribution. She pledged to take steps to address them. The paper's ethics policy requires reporters to give credit when they use the work of others.

The investigation was prompted by an April 3 column in which Albom reported that former Michigan State players Mateen Cleaves (search) and Jason Richardson, who now play in the NBA, attended the April 2 Michigan State-North Carolina NCAA basketball game. In fact, neither player was at the game. Albom wrote the column before the game took place, as if the events already had happened, based on what the players had told him they planned to do.

The paper previously has said Albom and four other employees were disciplined but did not say what action was taken. The paper also assigned five reporters and an editor to investigate Albom's work.

Hutton wrote in a Free Press column published Tuesday that the newspaper will begin random post-publication fact-checking to look for inaccuracies that slip through the newspaper's editing process. The paper also said it would start sending letters to people written about or quoted in the paper for their assessment of the accuracy of what was published.

In addition, the Free Press will require that taglines are used on stories to attribute material taken from staff and wire service reports, Hutton wrote.

Albom, host of a nationally syndicated radio show and author of the best-selling books "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," previously apologized for the column. He said in a statement Monday, "I have always been proud of my journalism, and I am glad that this long investigation has validated my hard work and my reputation."

In Monday's story, Albom defended his approach on using quotes from other sources, which he said editors had approved. He argued that it is more important for columnists to use quotes accurately than to identify where they came from. He also said many of the quotes were widely disseminated in the national media before his columns ran.

However, some of the quotes cited by Albom were obtained exclusively by particular media organizations.

In one example cited by the Free Press, Albom used a quote from a New York Observer interview with Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter found to have plagiarized or fabricated elements of dozens of stories. In the May 2003 interview, Blair said: "So Jayson Blair the human being could live, Jayson Blair the journalist had to die."

The newspaper also said some quotes cited by Albom were worded slightly differently from the way they appeared elsewhere. Albom insisted the passages were "essentially accurate."

Hutton wrote in Monday's Free Press story that she was troubled some staffers apparently believed the rules on attribution of quotes did not apply to them.

"I have to ask myself if I have failed as the leader of this organization to communicate the importance of the ethics policy, the substance of the ethics policy, my expectations of the ethics policy," she was quoted as saying.

Hutton said it is one matter to use quotes replayed repeatedly on television and another to use exclusive material without attribution. "It's a matter of giving credit where credit is due," she said.

Albom said it was common for Free Press sports columnists to use quotes from other media.

"There has never been a question to me about attribution. It was understood," Albom said. "As long as the quotes were accurate, if they came from other sources, attribution could be used or it could not be used, particularly in the Sunday columns, which I think are more like essays than anything else."

Albom's direct supervisor, Sports Editor Gene Myers, agreed in the story that sports columnists are given more leeway than reporters. He said the practice predates Albom's 20 years and his own 22 years at the Free Press.

Regarding the April 3 column, Myers said: "I have no clue how I missed it. I totally screwed up. Everyone needs an editor, and I failed miserably in this case."