We had our first brush with plagiarism for this News Reporting & Writing course sooner than I had expected. Since the issue was spotted before the article was printed and since we discussed it at length in class, I’m not going to go into details. I am also happy to note that the reporter in question responded with honesty and has done some really good work since then. So I am going to leave you with the plagiarism flowchart that we went through in class. You can read the original article with the flowchart at Poynter and plagiarism.com’s 10 types of plagiarism article to which it links.
I would also like you to read this Columbia Journalism Review article by Marc Fisher. Fisher compares theft of words with idea theft and brings in the perspective of the younger “digital native” generation on the copy-paste problem and originality of content. But the important questions posed in the article are do journalists need to redefine their concept of plagiarism and how does attribution work in the age of news aggregation.
You’ll notice some traditional responses in there, similar to our own approach to plagiarism for this course:
Buttry offers a four-word solution: When in doubt, attribute. “Sometimes you don’t remember where you got an idea, or it’s a mash-up,” he says. “But when you know the source of your inspiration, you should acknowledge it, maybe in the story or maybe in a social media post or even an email to the original reporter. Then that person feels flattered, not ripped off.”
That was Steve Buttry, journalist and the Lamar Family Visiting Scholar at LSU’s school of mass communication. Remember we included some of his instructions for the reporter’s checklist we are using for Pakistan Ink. There are other comments about the factors that often contribute to reporters taking the plagiarism route.
Often, she (Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute) says, those cases involve people who panic. Three plagiarists I spoke to blamed their infractions on moving too quickly under pressure to produce, an excuse for which many editors have zero patience, since journalism has always valued speed.
But McBride says the combination of a stepped-up pace of production and a sharp decrease in supervision is producing many more infractions. “These are mostly young people who struggle with the mechanics of writing,” she says, “and when you struggle with mechanics, you are much, much more likely to plagiarize.”
Eventually, Fisher with the help of the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten (we’ll probably read one of Weingarten’s pieces for class) leaves us with a case-by-case, severity spectrum-based approach to tackling plagiarism incidents and a reminder that some journalism values could help us through the confusion.
Journalism must always be about honesty, clarity, and credibility. Those foundations will not be shaken if we make our definition of plagiarism more complex, mapping a spectrum on which minor infractions fall on one end and wholesale theft on the other.
I agree with this approach and we are going to follow a similar principled line of action for the news reporting and writing we do this semester. (You must have noticed this in our policy on anonymous sources.) Since we are just starting out, we need to be extra careful and steer clear of copying someone else’s work and passing it on as our own. Just as the Society of Professional Journalists puts it, “Never plagiarize.”