No one was really surprised when the New York Times won three Pulitzer Prizes last week, including one in the international reporting category for its coverage of Russia’s “shadow wars” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. 

What came as a bigger shock is that a substantial part of the series, which tracks the Kremlin’s use of corruption, disinformation and direct violence across a range of locations, appeared to largely repeat the findings of Russian publication Proekt from a few months earlier. 

“I have no illusions about the real role of Russian journalism in the world,” the editor in chief Roman Badanin wrote on social media. “The two New York Times investigations, for which this venerable newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize yesterday, repeat the findings of Проект articles published a few months before.”

This is not the first such case involving a Russia-focused NYT Pulitzer-winning piece. The winning story of 2017, which looked at how the Russian government recruits elite hackers, was accused of basically re-telling a story published two years earlier by Riga-based outlet Meduza ‒ from narrative through key quotes. 

“The dispute between Meduza and the Times reveals a dirty little secret of international reporting,” Steven Perlberg wrote in Buzzfeed at the time. “Big news organizations can take the glory from small local publications that do much of the original, groundbreaking legwork.”

The latest series by Michael Schwirtz, David Kirkpatrick and Dionne Searcey includes 6 articles and two videos. According to Badanin, the article by Schwirtz in particular repeated the facts, narrative, and names that his Proekt published about 6 month earlier. 

Though he is not claiming this was plagiarism, Badanin, media veteran who worked as chief editor of Forbes Digital and TV Rain, says the Times ignored the industry standards of quoting and linking back to the earlier material. He responded likewise to a Twitter thread from Michael Schwirtz, which outlined the lengthy reporting process involved in the story.

The Fix spoke to Badanin about this case and why he thinks the unfortunate habit of big media outlets ends up harming local reporting.

Roman Badanin, Editor in chief of Proekt
Credits: Maria Karpuhina, Facebook

“In 2019, from March to September, we published a four-part investigation about Evgeny Prigozhin,” Badanin said. The first and third parts looked at African countries ‒ Madagascar in particular ‒ and were published in March-April 2019, about 6 months before the pieces in the Times.

Badanin explained that global interest in Russian affairs in Africa spiked in the wake of the murder of three Russian were murdered in the Central African Republic in 2018.

Referencing the earlier case of the Meduza piece about Russian hackers, Badanin said its not unusual to have multiple media writing about the same topic ‒ particularly when it is trending. The problem starts when the protagonists start to overlap. 

Referring to a central hacker in the story, Badanin said “NYT didn’t find this person on their own ‒ the hacker became known after Meduza’s story.” That’s when publishing the story without credit becomes a problem, he added.  

“In our case, all these political consultants named by [Michael Schwirtz] ‒ we wrote about them half a year before NYT,” Badanin noted. “Okay, I am sure they found them by themselves, but сommon sense tells me you can’t pretend there was nothing before, especially in English [the Proekt stories were published in Russian and in English at the same time ‒ The Fix]”

Journalism needs to adhere to proper standards of documentation, he continued. “Author, journalist, researcher, doesn’t matter, research the historiography of the story,” he said. If something was already published, crediting in the form of hyperlink is essential.

This problem isn’t new, he explained. Local media plays a critical role in the media ecosystem, but big media don’t always provide enough credit. Without local media, who does the essential groundwork, there wouldn’t be big stories,” he added

“I have a very simple message. It seems like it is a small thing, a hyperlink. But actually, it is a big thing, because a hyperlink means publicity, recognition. You know what publicity and recognition can give to a small media outlet in a dictatorship? Survival,” Badanin concluded. “It seems like a trifle, but it can help whole teams survive and not end up in prison. Because it is difficult to shut down media with a reputation and to imprison well-known journalists.”