On the plagiarism panic

One of the first things I learned in my first newsroom job was how to use a thick, black pencil to transform an official press release into a news story. You crossed out the letterhead and contact information, made a few style fixes, put ## where you wanted it to end, and sent it to the typesetters.

The information was newsworthy, it was fully sourced, and nobody cared that it hadn’t been reported and written by staff journalists. Originality wasn’t a big concern.

It is now. You, as a member of the public, might not rank this among your top five beefs with the media, but plagiarism has become the roaring hot center of a moral panic among journalists.

In recent months we’ve seen an enormous fuss surrounding the high-profile cases of Fareed Zakaria (who was forgiven for his pilferage) and Jonah Lehrer (who wasn’t), as well as a spate of lesser-known malefactors. Craig Silverman, who bird-dogs news practices for the Poynter Institute, calls it “Journalism’s Summer of Sin,” and chronicled the cascade of cases where writers either made things up or stole work from others, while their bosses, confronted with the evidence, waffled.

Now, I’m with Silverman in regarding fabrication as indefensible and spineless bureaucrats as contemptible. But my main interest is in the third and most numerous of these sins—so-called plagiarism—and in the zeal with which textual borrowings are being ferreted out and denounced as a sign of moral failure.

My fear is that what’s condemned as plagiarism is actually a slippery thing, and sometimes comes so close to what journalists are supposed to do that if we’re not careful, we’ll end up not so much protecting originality, but criminalizing routines that are integral to some of the most broadly beneficial practices of contemporary reporting.

Now I’ve said something like this before (I need to acknowledge that because I might otherwise be accused of self-plagiarism, a new entry in the catalogue of professional sins) but it bears repeating: Journalism isn’t built on imaginative originality. It’s a quintessentially derivative enterprise. The journalist who’s original, in the sense that we apply that term to poets or novelists, needs to be fired, because he or she is fabricating. The whole point of journalism is to reproduce information gathered in one place for the benefit of people who wouldn’t know about it otherwise. It’s the journalist’s deliberate lack of originality that we value; we call it accuracy.

I’m teasing, but only a little. News reporting is all about the determined quest for facts and ideas that originate elsewhere. Nowadays, thanks to the unprecedented bounty of relevant work online, the pressure on journalists to background their work more thoroughly than ever is intense.

To meet contemporary standards, journalists have a professional duty to take account of and reflect whatever else of value has been published on the subject they’re covering.

That’s a huge benefit to the rest of us. Publishing work that is as richly sourced and as broadly informed as deadline and patience allow is of incalculable value. The labor of journalists in casting their nets wide and drawing from what they catch makes the immense abundance of the Internet accessible to all of us.

Yes, this appropriation should be done properly. Original expression and fresh discovery should be acknowledged, so that innovators and pioneers get the credit they deserve, and the public gets a true picture of how facts are brought to light.

Careful attribution also alerts readers to the limits of a reporter’s knowledge by owning up when the writer got the information somewhere else and can’t personally vouch for it.

But it would be a pity if aggressive information gathering were suppressed by the heat of some moral hysteria. Credit isn’t owed indefinitely to the person who unearthed a momentarily sensational fact, and boilerplate doesn’t deserve to be saluted as if it were deathless poetry. The editors who wielded those old black pencils weren’t felons, they were newspeople relaying news. And at Internet velocities, even dazzling wordplay does enter the public domain pretty fast.

There’s a wistfulness underlying the plagiarism panic, a longing for the era of journalism before today’s curation and aggregation sites, which appropriate at will and extend reach at the expense of stature. It was a day when authorship conveyed authority and vital reporting stood alone for a moment, to be honored or reviled, instead of being instantaneously transformed into grist for ten thousand websites.

Much great work came of that, and we can only hope that we’ll be able to say as much for the era that is succeeding it.

One thought on “On the plagiarism panic

  1. Yours is a superior journalist’s blog. I have written on errorism, and Jonah Leher, “Jonah Leher, Your Brain on Error,” at berkeleyreporter.com, but I’m to old, 73, to grow to your level of accomplishment. After a 35 year absence from everything, including journalism, I stumbled into a position with a quirky on-line rag, the Berkeley Daily Planet, where I filed everything from obits, commentary, crime, events, and now political analysis. I’m asking accomplished journalists to read a few of my weird-ass articles, and offer tips, encouragement, even friendship. I got my first journalism job in 1957, Springfield, Il.

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