The liberal fact-checking website Snopes was forced to retract dozens of articles after the co-founder was caught in a plagiarism scandal. BuzzFeed News exposed the co-founder for plagiarizing 54 articles between 2015-2019.
David Mikkelson is the co-founder and executive editor of Snopes, "handling everything from researching and writing articles about urban legends to managing the site's technical infrastructure." Mickelson, who founded the fact-checking site in 1994 alongside his ex-wife, is now suspended from his own website after the shocking plagiarism claims surfaced.
Under his own name, a pseudonym "Jeff Zarronandia," and the generic "Snopes Staff" byline, Mikkelson plagiarized 54 articles from news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, and the Guardian, according to BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News alleged they had obtained emails and Slack messages that incriminated the Snopes co-founder.
In one Slack message from January 2016, Mikkelson detailed his strategy for copying and then quickly rewriting articles after publishing. "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. 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," he wrote.
Mickelson released a statement on the plagiarism charges.
The results of our internal audit confirmed that I engaged in multiple serious copyright violations of content that Snopes didn't have rights to use. There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgement. I am sorry. I have given full authority to our managing editor, Doreen Marchionni, to take any measures needed to address these issues.
Doreen Marchionni, Snopes vice president of editorial and managing editor, suspended Mikkelson from editorial duties pending "a comprehensive internal investigation. He remains an officer and a 50% shareholder of the company.
"Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop. It has no place in any context within this organization. We invite readers to let us know here if they find any other examples of plagiarized content so that we can apply the same treatment as above," Marchionni and Snopes chief operating officer Vinny Green said in an apology.
"To the staff, past, present, and future, who are undoubtedly impacted by these findings, we are deeply sorry. While an individual's actions have caused this breach of our ethics, we hope the extraordinary writers and editors who work at Snopes do not see their efforts and reputation undermined by these missteps," Marchionni and Green stated.
"We strongly condemn these poor journalistic practices. No writer participated in this behavior, nor did any editors — Doreen Marchionni, Camille Knox, and David Emery — support or encourage these practices," Snopes staff writers said in a note published on Friday.
Snopes said it plans to retract all of the plagiarized articles, but "the page itself will remain accessible" and feature an editor's note to explain the "source-attribution problem in the original story and link to the original news source(s)."