|In August 2021, Snopes’ co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson was revealed to be a serial plagiarizer, sloppily violating copyrights of other publications in an attempt to make the site look extremely proactive in uncovering news.|
“The definitive fact-checking site and reference source” — as snopes.com has long claimed to be — was caught with its pants down by BuzzFeed Contributor Dean Sterling Jones, who found “dozens” of articles under Snopes co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson’s byline, or the byline of his pseudonym, “Jeff Zarronandia”, to be plagiarized: lifted verbatim from other news sources in violation of copyright.
The Zarronandia byline is “just a David Mikkelson alt,” Snopes’ former managing editor Brooke Binkowski told BuzzFeed. “He used to write about topics he knew would get him hate mail under that assumed name. Plus it made it appear he had more staff than he had.” Binkowski was fired from Snopes in 2018, and is now the manager of Truth or Fiction, a competing fact-checking site.
In news, verbatim use of others’ “expression of facts” is a copyright violation; pretending you’ve scooped some other publication without attribution is an ethical violation. Ideally, summarization of facts is done in the writer’s own words, with some sort of attribution to the source (which is what This is True does in its news story summarizations).
Snopes has either deleted all of “Zarronandia’s” articles, or re-attributed them to “Snopes Staff”.
“I didn’t come from a journalism background,” Mikkelson told BuzzFeed’s Dean Sterling Jones. “I wasn’t used to doing news aggregation. A number of times I crossed the line to where it was copyright infringement. I own that.”
Mikkelson also owns 50 percent of Snopes, but agreed to allow Snopes’ Managing Editor, Doreen Marchionni, to take any action deemed necessary to protect the publications’ ethical standards. She “suspended Mikkelson from all editorial production pending a final outcome to the internal review and removed his access to our content management system,” Snopes announced on its site under the byline of Marchionni and Snopes Media Group COO Vinny Green. “Green flagged all 140 news articles” for review that may have included plagiarized material, and confirmed 54 of them were in enough violation that they were deleted, including all of the examples provided by BuzzFeed.
Appropriately, the URLs for the deleted pages are still active, with a notice that the article was withdrawn and why, with a link to the actual source. That is an ethical way to make amends for its co-founder’s failure.
The other founder was his then-wife, Barbara Mikkelson. They divorced in the mid-2010s; her half of the company was bought out by a media company, which led to a fight for control of the site. Readers contributed around $700,000 in response to Mr. Mikkelson’s urgent plea to keep the site going. It’s unclear if the dispute, which graduated to a lawsuit against the company, has been fully resolved.
Did He Think He Could Get Away With It?
Yes and No: as noted above Mikkelson allegedly would post verbatim articles scraped from legitimate news sites, which would start attracting traffic as people searched for information on breaking news (especially celebrity deaths), and then work on rewriting the article to reduce the copyright infringement. Such a practice is unethical in journalism.
Mikkelson allegedly explained it this way in a 2016 Slack message to staff, which was apparently provided to BuzzFeed: “Usually when a hot real news story breaks (such as a celebrity death), I just find a wire service or other news story about it and publish it on the site verbatim to quickly get a page up,” he told them. “Once that’s done, then I quickly start editing the page to reword it and add material from other sources to make it not plagiarized.”
Yeah, not so much.
Because the problem was, Mikkelson would get busy with other things and forget to go back and “cure” the plagiarism, or maybe figured the article was old news and would be forgotten. That made many such articles easy to find today with an online plagiarism checker. Oops.
Mikkelson wouldn’t let the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine archive Snopes’ articles …and perhaps that’s why: it might document more such articles as they’re in the process of being rewritten after publication. Another archive, archive.today, apparently still captured many Snopes pages; it’s where I got (for instance) my screencap of Jeff Zarronandia’s bio shown above.
Snopes Staff’s Response
In addition to the apology from “Senior Management” Marchionni and Green noted above, the staff writers — Alex Kasprak, Dan Evon, Jessica Lee, Nur Ibrahim, Jordan Liles, Madison Dapcevich, Dan Mac Guill, and Bethania Palma — strongly condemned the plagiarism. “No writer participated in this behavior, nor did any editors … support or encourage these practices,” they wrote. “We have all been held to very high journalistic standards, both by our editors and by our audience.”
Indeed, in their apology, Senior Management solicited readers to let them know if they found any other such examples so they can take further action. Presumably their “internal review” is still underway.
This is all a pretty humiliating time for Mikkelson, but he is mostly taking full blame (save the “but I wasn’t formally educated in journalism” excuse). He did the right thing by explicitly giving management authority to do whatever needed to be done to correct the problem. He may be the main owner of Snopes, but being suspended and having his site login credentials revoked is a big deal, and good for him for allowing it.
Of course, that may be the only way for Snopes to survive this scandal.
So, do I still trust Snopes? In a way, more than ever: they proved that they want to be accurate and non-deceiving, even when it came to “the boss.” And good for them.
It’s very hard for a site to “tell the truth” without some obliviot saying they’re lying, biased, partisan (in favor of “the other side,” of course), or otherwise being deceitful. So when a site that purports to “tell the truth” has been proven to be deceitful, it’s great to see that site take strong, positive action to cure the defect.
Whether Mikkelson — or Snopes — survives obviously remains to be seen, but when you get down to it, we need such sites to help us sort out what really is true. So for Snopes to “snope itself” and do better is a positive thing …and an indication that we can’t rely on any one site to arbitrate truth.
“We want to thank Jones for his reporting,” Snopes’ Senior Management said in its statement, showing their appreciation for the opportunity to improve. “It’s an example of dogged, watchdog journalism we cherish.”
17 August Update
I got this today from a long-time Premium (read: pays to support True) reader:
“This segment appears in every mailing,” she wrote. “I’m unsubscribing & stopping my monthly payment [to Snopes]. Thanks again, Randy.”
What she forwarded was this part, from “every” Snopes mailing to her:
While I’m completely aghast at SLAPP cases (which I’ve written about at the True Stella Awards), if what the media company referenced above has really filed such a suit, it needs to be thrown out. On the other hand, that it hasn’t been thrown out in the past four years is an indication to me that it’s not really a SLAPP.
The more I think about Snopes’ situation, the more I think Mikkelson needs to permanently resign from any leadership role at the site. That’s probably the only way for Snopes to survive. And until he does so, I think other Snopes patrons should do the same as my reader, and send those contributions instead to sites that are more worthy.
- Snopes Retracts 60 Articles Plagiarized by Co-Founder: ‘Our Staff Are Gutted’, New York Times, 13 August 2021, by Heather Murphy.
- The Co-Founder Of Snopes Wrote Dozens Of Plagiarized Articles For The Fact-Checking Site, BuzzFeed, 13 August 2021, by Dean Sterling Jones.
- Apology from Members of Snopes Senior Management, Snopes, 13 August 2021, by Doreen Marchionni & Vinny Green.
- A Note from Snopes Writers About Co-Founder’s Plagiarism, Snopes, 13 August 2021, by Alex Kasprak, Dan Evon, Jessica Lee, Nur Ibrahim, Jordan Liles, Madison Dapcevich, Dan Mac Guill, & Bethania Palma.
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