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. Continue reading “On the plagiarism panic”