Link-phobia and plagiarism

By Felix Salmon
October 17, 2011
Jack Shafer has an unforgiving take on l'affaire Kendra Marr:

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Jack Shafer has an unforgiving take on l’affaire Kendra Marr:

The plagiarist defrauds readers by leading them to believe that he has come by the facts of his story first-hand–that he vouches for the accuracy of the facts and interpretations under his byline. But this is not the case. Generally, the plagiarist doesn’t know whether the copy he’s lifted has gotten the story right because he hasn’t really investigated the topic. (If he had, he could write the story himself.) In such cases he must attribute the material he borrows so that at the very least the reader can hold somebody accountable for the facts in a story.

Or to put it another way, a journalist who does original work essentially claims, this is true, according to me. The conscientious journalist who cites the work of others essentially makes the claim that this is true, according to somebody else. The plagiarist makes no such claims in his work. By having no sources of his own and failing to point to the source he stole from, he breaks the “chain of evidence” that allows readers to contest or verify facts. By doing so, he produces worthless copy that wastes the time of his readers. And that’s the crime.

This is all true. But Marr reminds me of Zack Kouwe more than anything else. And if Marr pulled a Kouwe, she isn’t guilty of the crime that Shafer is accusing her of.

Kouwe was never cut out to be a blogger. When he saw a good story on some other site, he would re-report it, rather than just link to it. And I suspect that what happened with Marr was similar.

Let’s say that Marr saw a NYT story about Senator X. She thinks it’s an important story, she phones up Senator X’s office, asks them if the story is true, and they say yes. The right thing to do, in that case, is to link to the NYT story, and say that you’ve confirmed it with your own sources. The wrong thing to do is to try to rewrite the story yourself, since you haven’t really reported it, and you don’t really know what you’re talking about. And the way you get caught doing the wrong thing is by using NYT copy wholesale, without attribution. Then you can get done for plagiarism.

But still, you did confirm the facts in the story; you can, with honesty, say this is true, according to me.

What we saw with Kouwe, and what I think we’re seeing with Marr, is a peculiar new form of plagiarism — one that exists only in a world of continuous news. In the olden days, if you saw a story in the NYT and wanted to copy it, you would have to wait a whole day until your own paper came out, and that would give you lots of time to do your own reporting and write your own story. These days, there’s a lot of pressure, at places like Dealbook and Politico, to match stories quickly — so quickly that it’s significantly easier to just copy-and-paste your rival’s material than it is to craft your own story when you’re not much of an expert on it in the first place.

In the age of the link, such activity should never need to happen. But there’s a reason that the plagiarist copies rather than linking. And the reason is that linking and aggregation is still not remotely as respected, in newsrooms, as reporting is. So some young reporters, wanting to make a name for themselves, plagiarize instead of linking, in an attempt to take credit for the work of others. It’s still — quite rightly — a firing offense. But it’s not quite — or not necessarily — the crime that Shafer hates so much. It can just be a horrible side-effect of link-phobia, which exists even at web-native publications like Politico.

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