Professional harikiri

Like convicted killer Steven Goff, I too know the power and the relief of a confession.

More than two decades after he killed his childhood friend Frederick Hart, Goff said his confession brought him peace, allowing him to finally sleep well in his uncomfortable and cramped jail cell.

I haven’t murdered anyone, but I have committed another cardinal sin: plagiarism.

A month ago I was pulled into an office by one of The Toronto Star’s city editors.

Two printouts were laid out on the desk in front of me. Two printouts of two different, yet uncannily similar, stories about rejected vanity licence plates in Ontario. A total of six paragraphs were similar in form and substance.

The first was written by Star journalist Daniel Dale in 2010; the second by myself in August 2013.

I was asked whether I had knowingly plagiarized from Dale’s article.

Plagiarism.

It’s a dirty word, imbued with negative connotation, and a label that’s difficult to shake off.

“Yes,” I said, without hesitation.

As I clicked on the ‘publish’ button back in August, I knew what I was doing wasn’t right, wasn’t up to my usual journalistic standards.

I’d never plagiarized before in my life.

And so with this confession came relief.

Yes, I felt pressured to clean up, analyze and convert a data set I’d just received into an online database to accompany the story.

Yes, I was feeling burned out after spending a month of evenings and weekends working on code that would scrape the city’s lobbyist registry

But frankly, I can’t make excuses for the inexcusable. No matter how much pressure there is in a newsroom, no matter how tired you may be, there’s no justifying plagiarism.

In one moment I committed professional harikiri and – more importantly – I let down my editors, my Star colleague Dale and the Star readers.

In one moment, I laid ruin to a summer of innovative and enterprise reporting – journalism that was driven by a mixture of new-school data journalism and old-school dirt-digging.

Stories that – through custom-written code and interactive graphics, and Freedom of Information requests – among other issues revealed the prevalence of discarded needles on Toronto’s streets, and the extent to which city councillors are lobbied by big corporations.

And so last week Kathy English, the Star’s Public Editor, published a note in the newspaper and on the online version of the article – a standard process adopted by the paper to promote transparency with its readers.

An investigation was conducted into all the articles I’d written for the Star to ensure this was a one-off – it was.

And today English published a column about my lapse in judgement.

My initial reaction was mixed.

Anger at the attention drawn to my indiscretion.

Shame at this public humiliation. I felt like burying my head in the hand, and I thought about giving up a career I’d only just begun, a career I love so much.

Someone at the Star – not the Public Editor – told me this week that what I did was stupid, and has caused a gash in my CV that will take a long time to heal.

And they’re right.

But instead of giving up, I’ve decided to take the harder path, to take this knock fully on the chin, hold up my hand, admit my mistake, and to slowly try to regain people’s trust and to become a better journalist.

Confession can bring relief, and can set the foundations for a new beginning.

So let the rebuilding begin with this confession: I plagiarized.