How to think about plagiarism

By Jack Shafer
October 14, 2011

An editor must have a heart like leather. Not freshly tanned leather—all supple and yielding like a baby’s bum—but like an abandoned baseball glove that’s been roasting in the Sonoran Desert for five or six years. Only those who are hard of heart can properly deal with the plagiarists who violate the journalistic code.

I’m pleased to report that this morning Politico‘s top editors, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rock-hearted in resolving charges that their reporter, Kendra Marr, lifted material from the New York Times, the Associated Press, Scripps Howard, Greenwire, The Hill, and elsewhere for at least seven of her stories with no attribution. Marr has resigned. Harris and VandeHei’s compact statement about Marr’s disgrace doesn’t use the word plagiarism, but should, as my friend the press critic Craig Silverman points out. I agree.

“There are no mitigating circumstances for plagiarism,” the cold, cold heart of Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli stated earlier this year after Post reporter Sari Horwitz got caught stealing copy from the Arizona Republic.

Brauchli got it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if you pinched copy because you were tired, you were harried, your spouse or child was sick or dying, you were under deadline pressure, you jumbled up your notes, you took boilerplate or wire copy that nobody should really claim “authorship” over,  you have a substance problem, you committed a cut-and-paste error, you were blinded by the “warp speed” of the Internet, you were a victim of the “win the morning” culture, you are young and inexperienced, you had two windows open at the same time and confused them, or any of the excuses tendered by the accused reporters described in Trudy Lieberman’s 1995 Columbia Journalism Review article.

These aren’t excuses. These are confessions. And they mitigate nothing.

As I’ve written before, plagiarism doesn’t offend me because it exploits the previous hard work of some enterprising writer—even though it does. When you attribute passages to another writer, you’re likewise exploiting their work. But at least they receive psychic income from the citation. The quoted writer is enriched by the fact that their work has been acknowledged, that somebody might go back and read their work, and that their reputation is likely to rise because of the credit thrown their way.

Spare the violated writer any pity. He’ll be okay. Give your pity to readers, who are the real victims.

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.

For evidence of how widespread journalistic plagiarism is, to appreciate the commonness of Marr’s transgression, search the word on the Poynter Institute website and scroll the scores of action reports. Plagiarism—like other forms of professional malpractice—can’t be eliminated. It can only be policed.

Please don’t confuse plagiarists with aggregators, which is tempting in this case because the transgressor is Politico. Oh, aggregators upset a lot of people, from Robert Thomson to Bill Keller. But as long as aggregators stay within the fair-use doctrine and cite the sources that they’re summarizing, I can’t complain. To cite myself, aggregators are serving “a huge, previously ignored readership out there [which] wants its news hot, quick, and tight,” an audience that the legacy media could have owned. Today, the Washington Post Co. finds itself playing aggregation catch-up via a beta project called Trove. It’s about time.

******

The crime of plagiarism goes lightly punished, as Lieberman’s story reports, but is that why it persists? If you have any ideas, drop me a line at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is certified plagiarism-free. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

3 comments

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Excuses for plagiarism will get harder and harder to justify. Just as plagiarism is getting easier to accomplish, policing it is getting much easier… All you need in most cases is a search-engine! I wonder whether there’s a WordPress plugin for policing (or at least flagging up) plagiarism?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Could not agree more. I think Universities need to be tougher – often they just fail a paper if it has plagiarism, but instead the student should always be failed for the entire course, or be suspended.

Posted by ethicreate | Report as abusive

FWIW, at Columbia Journalism School, plagiarizers not only flunk the course, they get kicked out. Happened to a few of them.

Good piece, by the way.

Posted by Journo2 | Report as abusive