Why plagiarism matters

Published on CNN.com, July 19, 2016 I hail from the world of journalism, which has seen its fair share of plagiarism scandals in the past decade or so, starting with the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times in 2003. But plagiarism in the news business is a different animal from what’s being alleged […]

Why news organizations need to credit each other

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of the Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, executive editor Martin Baron wrote to  Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism—among them disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities, and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism.  McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. (The Times later acknowledged its error.)

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize, or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting—generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Marty Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique, it’s the overall transparency of the news process—the way that significant information comes to light—and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You Continue reading “Why news organizations need to credit each other”

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”

The Romenesko Affair: Seeking fairness in the tough world of news aggregation

For more than a decade, one of the most influential figures in the U.S. news media has been someone few people outside the business ever heard of, an ex-newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago named Jim Romenesko. His influence derived from his daily blog, which consisted of capsule descriptions and links to reporting about the media published elsewhere.

Newspeople followed Romenesko’s blog closely. It became the premier community bulletin board, directing the attention of journalists to controversies, scandals, layoffs, promotions, and newsroom foolishness of all kinds. The attention he gave, or denied, to the latest dust-up helped ensure its prominence or its obscurity. (I myself have benefited from his linking to my columns.)

Romenesko worked for the Poynter Institute, another powerful and little known force in the media. Poynter, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a nonprofit, mid-career training academy for journalists. Its seminars and conferences reach hundreds of journalists a year, and its website is an emporium of columns and service features on best practices of all kinds. Romenesko’s blog was a marquee attraction.

Together, Romenesko and Poynter have had major influence on professional standards and practices, so word that they parted ways after 12 years couldn’t fail to be big news, especially when the breakup was provoked by questions raised by the Columbia Journalism Review, the country’s oldest industry watchdog, about their own standards and practices. The ensuing row offers insight into one major area in which journalistic practice is evolving or, some might say, deteriorating.

At issue is perhaps the most valuable and most popular journalistic form to emerge in the digital era, the news aggregation site. Continue reading “The Romenesko Affair: Seeking fairness in the tough world of news aggregation”

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. […]