A University Daily Kansan columnist has resigned from the newspaper after his editors learned that he lifted the substance of a recently published piece from another publication.
In an editorial published today, the Kansan reported writer Bryenn Bierwirth’s resignation and apologized for the column, which “borrowed” its key points from an article published last year by The Guardian.
“The Kansan accepts only fact-based reporting, the pursuit of truth in accurate storytelling and a constant standard of integrity in both news and editorial content,” editor-in-chief Trevor Graff wrote in the editorial. “... looking forward, we will be reevaluating the process that allowed this to publish.”
Bierwirth was a staff opinion columnist and an account executive on the Kansan advertising staff, Graff said.
The Journal-World’s attempts to reach Bierwirth today were unsuccessful. The Kansan is the Kansas University student newspaper and operates independently from the school.
Bierwirth's fabricated column, headlined “Hospice patients provide insights to living a happier life,” was published online Nov. 4 and in print Nov. 5.
In the column, Bierwirth wrote that he “reached out to a hospice center to learn more about the universal formula for happiness, and asked for guidance from patients there.” He went on to summarize four key pieces of advice that patients reportedly shared with him. None of the patients was named.
Bierwirth acknowledged that he did not visit a hospice center and did not talk to the patients, Graff said. Graff said the heft of the column, including the four key pieces of advice, appears to have been paraphrased from “Top five regrets of the dying,” an article published Feb. 1, 2012, on theguardian.com.
While Bierwirth’s column did not copy The Guardian word-for-word, much of it appeared to be avoiding verbatim replication just enough to avoid obvious plagiarism, Graff said.
“This is far too similar to be a coincidence,” Graff said.
On Monday, USA Today College published a story headlined “5 life lessons I learned from a University of Kansas student journalist” — in which the writer thanks and praises Bierwirth for his inspirational hospice column. (On usatodayeducate.com, the story now carries an editor’s note about the Kansan’s update on Bierwirth’s column.)
A KU journalism graduate who read the USA Today story contacted Graff about the similarities between Bierwirth’s column and The Guardian article, Graff said.
After confirming Bierwirth fabricated the hospice column, the Kansan pulled from its website his staff profile and other past columns, pending further vetting, Graff said.
KU associate journalism professor Doug Ward, who did not have Bierwirth as a student, said such situations happen from time to time, both in academia and professional publications.
“It’s so easy to do, but it’s also easy to see,” Ward said. “And I think that anybody who thinks they’re going to get away with it is wrong, whether that’s in a school newspaper or in a school paper.”
Ward said he tries to teach his editing students skepticism, especially because everyone has so much information at their fingertips on the Web.
The Kansan is reviewing the situation and expects to make changes to prevent similar problems in the future, Graff said.
“The most important thing anyone in this newsroom can do is learn from this,” he said.