Plagiarism and Precedence

From Media Ethics Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 18, No. 1

The topic of plagiarism draws strong opinion, as it should, and the current notoriety of theft by reporters (1) obligates those of us who try to flesh out journalistic rights and wrongs to offer some sensible observations about originality and intellectual honesty in the newsroom. That’s a special challenge when the subject is a practice — journalism — whose core obligations consist, to a considerable degree, of judiciously taking things from one place and presenting them, faithfully and accurately, in another.

Since journalism comprises an energetic and disciplined process of, at the minimum, empirical appropriation, the problem is to figure out when that appropriation is conducted in ways that are ethically permissible and when it isn’t.

The recent exchange between professors Peggy J. Bowers and Douglas Perret Starr (MEDIA ETHICS, Spring 2006, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 8, 9, passim) offers a valuable point of departure. Much of it consisted of a thoughtful reminder of the harms wrought by theft in the realm of ideas. Prof. Bowers was especially eloquent in her denunciation of plagiarism as something of an ontological crime, almost an intellectual body-snatching. It robs creators of reasonable association with their creations, along with just recognition for them, and it undermines fundamental endeavors through which we, as humans, define ourselves and try to contribute to the play of discourse.

My intention here is to try to focus on the specific realities of journalism. My argument will be that the principles of intellectual originality that derive from creative fiction and academic inquiry need some customizing to be appropriate to journalism. I will propose a formulation that incorporates standard elements of plagiarism and adds to them a specifically journalistic component, which involves a professional obligation to acknowledge precedence.

This obligation, in my view, serves not only the legitimate goal of crediting original achievement by other journalists, thereby stimulating more of the same, but also the equally pressing public interest of illuminating the vital social processes through which important contemporary realities are identified and exposed.

What I hope to do is to close the circle between, on the one hand, what is both right as a pre-professional duty and honest as a matter of professional practice and, on the other, what ultimately serves the public. I will argue that the intellectual theft among journalists that causes the greatest harm entails a bogus claim of originality that denies the public insight into how key facts come to light. That false claim facilitates a narrowing of social discourse, to the benefit of market-dominant news organizations and the detriment of the public.

In short, it’s not when quotes are cribbed, bad as that is, but when stories are stolen, that the most egregious journalistic pillaging takes place. And for all the clamor about plagiarism, existing standards of attribution are largely silent, or at best incoherent, when it comes to that level of theft. (2)

Here’s a preliminary schema that, I think, allows us to begin formulating rules to govern the particularities of journalistic plagiarism, defined here as a variety of ethically impermissible appropriation in which sourcing is undisclosed and credit is therefore denied. Accordingly, plagiarism incorporates elements of some or all of the following:

– It involves a false claim to expressive innovation or to first discovery and disclosure. This claim is usually implied — by an absence of attribution — rather than asserted. It may cover conceptual originality (purporting to describe something in a novel way), empirical enterprise (purporting to unearth previously non-public facts), or both.

– The innovation or discovery has to be fairly recent. We must allow that hidden facts, once published, in time join a store of public knowledge. Thus, reminding readers how they first came to light may fade in urgency, from a duty to a courtesy.

– Concealment of origin is deliberate. The plagiarist knows full well where he or she got the quote, information, description or insight.

– It involves a denial of credit, in the dual sense of credit — not just an acknowledgement, but an honor, a salute. That implies the information is credit-worthy, which means it’s non-trivial and meets a materiality threshold.

Here are the harms that make plagiarism ethically impermissible:

First, the concealment is deceptive in itself, and because journalism is constituted around obligations of truth-seeking and truth-telling, as an untruth it violates core professional norms.

The concealment is deceptive in a second sense, in that it overstates the authenticity of the plagiarized account by misrepresenting the authority on which the account is based. If the story relies on information cribbed from a source that I, as a reader, mistrust, I’m prevented from judging the veracity of the story appropriately.

Third, the deception impedes verification and obstructs accountability by hindering the process by which information would otherwise be confirmed. The plagiarism keeps other journalists from determining how solid the account actually is. They can’t back-check sources because the sourcing has been obfuscated.

Fourth, in the case not of empirical theft but of unattributed use of fresh literary expression, verbatim passages, metaphors and the like, the plagiarist lays claim to imaginative insights he or she didn’t author. That theft inflates the putative author’s own quality of insight, deprives the originator of credit that he or she deserves and that the public would benefit from knowing about, and thereby reduces the incentive for others to aspire to originality.

To these I would add a fifth class of harm. This relates to what I would qualify as improper journalistic appropriation but which is not normally considered plagiarism:

In the case of whole stories re-reported and presented as scoops, the theft ratifies a structure of institutional dominance that enables louder voices to exploit their market strength by falsely asserting a commensurate superiority in journalistic enterprise. The public is led to ignore and undervalue energetic reporting by weaker rivals (trade publications, local news organizations or, increasingly, Internet-based insurgents) that nourishes and renews the stock of public knowledge.

Let me elaborate.

For starters, let’s return to the point that journalism, as normally practiced, is not an especially original kind of discourse. (3)

By and large, journalists are forbidden to originate things. They are professionally obligated not to invent characters or plots. And, unless they’re commentators or editorialists, they’re not supposed to express their own ideas. When they do, they may be accused of being improperly opinionated. Their whole métier is to capture and convey realities, words, ideas from elsewhere.

Hence, we’re grateful for the journalists’ initiative, curiosity and insight — a point I’ll return to in a moment — and we expect them to traffic in novelty and to tell us things we don’t already know. But we don’t value journalists, as we do poets or professors, for their originality. On the contrary, we hope that the journalist’s account remains ruthlessly faithful to source material, and we honor that fidelity as accuracy.

Journalism, in that respect, is quintessentially derivative. Strictly speaking, the journalist who’s being original, in anything like the sense that we would use to praise a novelist, is guilty of fabrication and should be fired.

That does not mean that plagiarism is irrelevant to journalism; and, as I discuss below, journalism contains vast scope for enterprise, curiosity, energy and creativity. But it does mean that any guidelines we might adopt to govern journalistic plagiarism must do nothing to inhibit the aggressive capture of relevant and non-original facts that is intrinsic to the practice.

They may also need to acknowledge the relatively limited scope for scrupulous attribution that news forms permit, quite unlike the line-by-line precision demanded of scholarly expression. (4) So what should the prohibition on plagiarism mean for journalists?

Obviously, at its most basic, journalistic plagiarism forbids un-credited reuse of what intellectual property law would describe as unique expression. Oftentimes, in groping for a particularly apt way to describe a reality, journalists come up with characterizations that are indeed original. These tours de force deserve credit, and the downstream scribes who help themselves to such creative work as if it resided in some public neighborhood of the intellectual either are doing wrong, just like the historian who lifts carefully crafted passages from source materials without acknowledgment.

Admittedly, even this principle may not always be easy to apply. Innovative expression lapses into cliché rapidly in the Internet age of non-stop borrowing and lending. The first reporter who likened an ill-prepared official at a press conference to “a deer in the headlights,” or who described some minor disaster as “a wake-up call,” may have imagined he or she had come up with a startling new image; but in no time that fresh, irreverent description had become a staple, which a Google search would turn up in hundreds of other accounts. The empirical task of pinpointing the moment of invention rapidly becomes insurmountable and, I submit, the whole endeavor becomes pointless.

Plus, confining plagiarism to original expression lets off the hook the many reporters and editors who surrender their responsibility to decide independently what matters most in the events they cover to news organizations deemed more authoritative. “What is the Times [or Post, or Telegraph, or rival network] leading with?” That has long been a routine question in press rooms where reporters from competing news organizations work against deadline.

The kindest way to construe such a question is that it represents a measure of intellectual humility, a deference to superior news judgment. The less charitable construction is that it signals a willingness to borrow the insight of a presumably more knowledgeable reporter or editor, and to replace, without admitting it, one news organization’s supposedly independent judgment with the conclusions of another.

Is that plagiarism? It doesn’t meet our criteria, since it doesn’t involve innovative expression or un-credited initial discovery. Yet it represents a covert waiver of independence that is no less deceptive to the public, and an intellectual reliance that is all but parasitic.

Similarly, the reporter who unearths a previously undetected contradiction between claims and realities would normally be worth crediting. Say a public official characterizes the roots of a policy initiative in a self-serving but misleading way; a reporter who has covered that policy exposes the falsity of the official’s account. But the other news organizations that then replicate that reporting would typically not say how they became aware of the underlying back-story. Nor would they be accused of plagiarism, since they stole neither innovative expression nor previously undisclosed facts. Instead, what they stole was the entire story. We’ll return to this problem in a moment in our discussion of precedence.

So the ban on theft of original expression advances our discussion of journalistic plagiarism, but not very far. The examples of appropriation adduced above feel wrong, yet they are, regrettably I think, well within the bounds of normal journalistic practice.

To determine whether they are indeed impermissible we need to figure out what is ethically troubling about them. And here I think that the wrong has to do not just with the harm done to the un-credited originator, but with the deception done to the people who read or see the work that’s derived from it. The dimension of plagiarism I want to address isn’t some private bit of larceny involving a pair of writers, one ripped off by another; it’s a deception worked on the public.

Usually, deception is of concern when the speaker leads the listener to believe things that the speaker knows or believes are false. Here, instead, I’m not concerned with substantive falsity. My concern is the epistemological deception that occurs when the audience is deliberately misled as to what the journalist actually knows and how he or she knows it. At issue in this deception isn’t truth or falsehood, but authenticity.

At the most basic level, that gives us a handle on criticizing what was once a widespread practice of re-publishing information that had already appeared elsewhere without indicating where. Suppose I quote somebody as saying something that person never said to me. I found the quote in another publication and used it. My reader, however, naturally assumes that the accuracy of the quote is something I can personally vouch for, which isn’t true.

The credibility of the quote is based on an implied claim of veracity for which I, the reporter, have no first-hand basis. The account is believed because of a false implication of authenticity, and the reader who accepts that implication is being deceived.

A different kind of epistemological deception is practiced when the process by which important realities are identified is readily known and deliberately concealed.

These are whole stories broken by smaller news operations and re-reported by much larger ones, which typically say nothing about where they got the stories. Suppose the reporter for a specialized newsletter, a news-hungry Web log or a community weekly, breaks a story of wide consequence. The news organization with a bigger platform or a louder megaphone might assign a reporter to that story, and come up with a substantially similar account, which it would publish without acknowledging how it first became aware of the story.

Note that the original story isn’t being stolen, at least not in a literal sense. Nor is its authenticity in doubt: The sources it is based on are re-interviewed (a task made immeasurably easier once they’ve been publicly named), the documents reviewed or otherwise freshly verified, and the writing is original.

Sure, the professional achievement represented by the first story is concealed, and the offending publication, by failing to own up to its debt, is misleading its readers by implicitly making unfounded claims about the quality and comprehensiveness of its coverage.

But why should that matter?

First, the most important dimension of what I’d call real journalistic originality is ignored. The combination of conceptual and empirical enterprise that constitutes true journalistic initiative is concealed. Hence, it’s an offense to the professional effort that engendered the scoop.

Second, denying credit to the smaller rival whose importance is discounted as a “tip sheet,” as if its only public value is as a virtually in-house resource of the market-dominant organization, deprives it of the audience it might otherwise draw. The news-attending public ends up with a thinner variety of informational options.

Third, withholding credit insulates journalists from competition to which they ought to be exposed. At present, the reporter for a large-circulation operation who stumbles on a valuable story by monitoring the trade publications that plow his or her beat would be commended for sharp reporting. Duplicating the story would suffice to prove the reporter was on top of the beat.

If, instead, that same reporter were professionally obliged to acknowledge where the story came from, he or she would be duty-bound to work harder to avoid getting beaten the next time. Plus, merely duplicating the story would not be acceptable; the reporter would have to advance the story, by probing its implications, deepening the initial reporting and, all in all, producing superior journalism.

Fourth, concealing a story’s origin deprives the public of valuable information about how social realities come to light. How we know what we know — the social epistemology of the story — is obfuscated.

“The media” has become a confused catch-phrase for an array of news-producing capabilities. In reality, the media consist of a powerful and hierarchical constellation of organizations, driven by differing commercial, professional, audience and ideological pressures. They are powerful instruments of social self-awareness, and the public benefits by developing a sophisticated understanding of who they are, what their strengths are, and which ones produce the most valuable and informative coverage in given areas. Although the current clamor for transparency is generally applied to questions of whether to expose internal newsroom procedures (5), what I’m describing constitutes a dimension of transparency with much wider public consequence and potential value.

Finally, for all those reasons, the ultimate import of the current concerns about plagiarism seems to me to lie in developing and promulgating a thoroughgoing professional duty to honor precedence.

Respect for precedence would mean that journalists should credit work that precedes and materially contributes to their own. Obviously, we would have to acknowledge some materiality threshold, and have to accept format-bound restrictions on attribution and commonsense limits imposed by the passage of time.

But the core principle is acknowledgment of intellectual interdependency, an awareness that good journalism necessarily builds on other good journalism, that the origin of that preceding journalism is a fact that belongs in the public domain, that both journalists and the public benefit from making the process of social self-awareness visible and accessible.

As a last point, let me acknowledge that I have posed this precedence issue largely in terms of small voices being drowned out by louder ones. But doesn’t this obligation flow both ways? And if so, must every evening network newscast that is spawned by a story in that morning’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal acknowledge as much? Aren’t market-dominant organizations that are routinely pillaged for leads by lesser news staffs entitled to the same consideration that I’ve proposed the small fry deserve?

I think the answer is “yes.” Indeed, concealing the origin of coverage that truly sets the public agenda may constitute an even greater harm than that done when the enterprise of small and scrappy news outfits is filched. What’s concealed in the former case is dominance and vast influence, something that should be central to what news strives to expose.

To conclude, plagiarism is fully entitled to the heat and light of sharp ethical discussion. My suggestion here is to widen the definition of originality away from notions that work more effectively in the realm of fiction and academic elaboration to a reformulation that ensures that the most valuable dimensions of journalistic originality are protected and promoted. That would mean a robust obligation to acknowledge precedence, and ensure that journalists whose work nourishes the work of others get the credit they deserve.

(1) Notable recent instances involved The New York Times’ Jayson Blair; Tom Squitieri, the Pentagon correspondent for USA Today (who had apparently confirmed the quotes he reused with the people who were quoted); Detroit Free Press sports columnist and best-selling author Mitch Albom; and reporters with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Wired magazine, and a growing list of other news organizations. (See also article by John Seigenthaler in this issue of MEDIA ETHICS)

(2) See e.g., Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, and The New York Times code, which forbids plagiarism without explanation or elaboration.

(3) I have made variations of this argument previously. See: “What is ‘original’ journalism anyway?,” The Miami Herald, May 30, 2005 (distributed by Knight Ridder Tribune wire, archived at; “Respecting Precedence,” The Business Journalist (Society of American Business Editors and Writers, April/May 2006, available at

(4) There are stylistic problems associated with overcoming format-based restrictions on how much attribution news reports can contain. This issue falls outside my topic here. I’m interested in exploring the intellectual debts that journalists incur and how they should be acknowledged. The cosmetics of crediting both honestly and gracefully are a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. But URLs such as those in note 3 above admittedly are a challenge.

(5) See, e.g., Smolkin, Rachel, “Too Transparent?” American Journalism Review, April/May 2006, available at:

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va. He may be contacted at

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.1,16-21.

© Copyright 2009 Media Ethics Magazine

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