01 January 2013

Word-nappers: A subjectively abridged history of plagiarism

The word “plagiarism” is derived from the Latin for “kidnap,” and the presence of word-nappers in this country is astounding, and growing — arguably at a rate commensurate with the growing ubiquity of electronic information. 

Plagiarism certainly is not a new problem, either, although some postmodernists would argue it’s an outdated and/or irrelevant relic from the Romantic era, when the acknowledgement of intellectual property as something tangible came into the public eye. Pre-romantic scholars and/or anarchists would argue that plagiarism can not exist because intellectual property is a myth (more on this later). 

Property concepts aside, plagiarism in journalism is tantamount to malpractice in medicine, to bribery in judicial circles, to kickbacks in politics, to incompetence in education, to lying in business. We punish these other professionals when they transgress against society, by why do we allow media companies to police themselves when their transgressions are equally as — if not more — dangerous to the fabric of free society?  

06 December 2012

Plagiarism, schmagiarism: Journalistic word theft slowly killing industry integrity

I remember the moment when I was first plagiarized. It was a special moment... finally I wrote something worthy enough to be stolen from me. 

It was a story about a man who robbed a Bank of America in 2010 wearing a bright blue yarmulke. One year after the incident the man remained unidentified and at large. The only evidence police had included a security camera photograph of the man stuffing a wad of cash into his jacket, and the testimony of the bank clerks. My editor, Josh Fisher, asked me to find out if the Darien police had any information on the guy. So I began making phone calls.

Three police officers received voice mails and emails from me over several days. Finally I figured out that he was caught in California, but I still didn’t have his name. More phone calls, more emails, more waiting. Nearly two weeks later I finally get all the details about this guy, his history, everything. We run the story as the lead on the front page.

The next day a competing news website had the same story. It was completely reworded, but not a single detail was in this scraped story that was not in mine — every detail I included, the other reporter included, and every element I omitted, he omitted. He wasn’t even around when the incident took place in 2010, in fact, his website wasn’t even operational. No credit was given either.

There is a certain amount of fury that comes with an experience like this. It's as if someone took something personal from you, like a family heirloom or, perhaps worse, some aspect of your self. After all,  stories are mere extensions of who we are as people, as individuals, and for a story to be taken and claimed by someone else is a cruel and unusual form of identity theft. The kind that bears fruit for the person who didn't even plant the tree.

29 February 2012

Death of the deadline


Image via digitalcitizen.ca
Getting beat by a competitor with a breaking news story is part of being a journalist. It toughens you, whittles you down to your sharpest point, and fills you with fire to not let it happen again. 

When it happens with other stories — ones that might have taken months or even years to develop — the result is embarrassment. Why didn’t I see that? We might think. 

Few would argue that speed is not a driving value in the modern newsroom. But how important is speed when it comes to publishing news? Should accuracy suffer on account of speed? 

Traditionally, news was deadline-driven and only television or radio could break news in real-time. With the net, anyone with a connection can break news as it happens. This has essentially eliminated the need for a deadline, as news stories are often posted as they are written, with edits and updates amended as necessary. At the very latest, a news story will go live the day after it is written. Any longer than that and you risk being scooped. 

Sure we might still write to a deadline, or have a target for finishing a story. But the fluid nature of online news allows for constant updates and amendments and corrections and even conversations through the comments. Is an online story ever truly finished?

So rather than drive ourselves to be accurate, the rising tendency is to get it first and fix it later if it's wrong.

22 February 2012

What does it mean to own a creative work in a global society?

By David DesRoches

Type “plag” in a Google search box and “plagiarism” is the first word suggested. Second on the list is “plague.” Some rough logic would indicate that people are more interested in or concerned about plagiarism than they are about the danger of plagues. It’s no certain science, but it’s a good argument for people’s preoccupation with the theft of ideas. Wikipedia’s definition of plagiarism is replete with contradictions, arguments over degrees, even disagreements over its very existence. The page is in constant flux — it was last changed the day before I penned these lines. 

Type “is plag” and Google suggests “is plagiarism illegal.” People, including yours truly, are also interested in knowing if stealing intellectual property is in fact a crime. Some other Google suggestions: is plagiarism illegal, is plagiarism a crime, is it against the law, is it wrong, is it a federal offense, is it a misdemeanor, is it illegal in the U.S., is it cheating, is it ethical, is it theft, and is it on the rise. 

Plagiarism is not illegal in the U.S., although it depends on the degree of the theft. If it violates the Fair Use doctrine than it is a violation of copyright law. Copyright rules for the Web are not clear because of the international nature of the internet. However, the U.S. is arguably more lenient when it comes to prosecuting claims of copyright infringement than other countries. Asya Calixto, a lawyer in Prince Lobel's media and intellectual property group, said that "there isn’t a rule of thumb when it comes to fair use, and that the doctrine is very case-specific."

In one case, Righthaven LLC vs. Realty One Group Inc., the court found that the use of eight sentences from a 30-sentence story was Fair Use in part because it took facts from the story and not creative interpretations of those facts. "The closer you get to non-factual interpretations, comments, or conclusions, the more likely it is that your use would constitute copyright infringement," Calixto said.

16 February 2012

The postmodern plagiarist pushes journalism into a corner

Image (c) itfipvirtual.net

Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with just the right idea.”
– Comte de Lautréamont, 1870
This controversial quote sends chills into the spines of journalists who have been plagiarized. Most of us take ownership of the work our hands and minds create, if not legally, at least intellectually. But proponents of de Lautréamont's mantra might consider his acumen insightful. One person in particular, postmodern activist Guy Debord, was so enamored with this concept that he actually plagiarized the exact phrase, in French, in his 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle.

In the art world, stealing is often considered a form of flattery. For centuries, originality was shunned as art and literature were judged on how well the creator imitated the masters. But things changed as western societies entered the Romantic period, and an individual’s right to ownership of a creative or literary work became a value to rival society’s right to common property.

06 February 2012

Aggregation tests traditional notions of sourcing and accountability

 “A thousand bloggers all talking to each other doesn’t get you a report from a war zone. Somebody’s got to take a real risk... [and] gather that news originally.”
- Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales,
in Page One documentary

Media blogger Jim Romenesko gained a Twitter following of more than 45,000 people (and growing) by being a maverick paraphraser — a sensei in the art of finding interesting news and distilling it to its essence. His success germinated while working at the Poynter Institute where he helped pioneer an aggregation style that now permeates the web. He was responsible for hundreds of thousands of hits to other websites, giving them free advertising through his enticing summaries.
In late 2011, Romenesko’s aggregation techniques became the subject of hot debate and derision when his boss, Julie Moos, posted a blog that challenged his practices and claimed his attributions were incomplete. She provided examples where Romenesko failed to include quotation marks around certain phrases within his aggregated story.

18 January 2012

Correcting a correction and the power/danger of unverified facts

Publishing an unverified fact is an opportunity to challenge traditional notions of power as it relates to truth gatekeepers. It is not, however, an excuse for sloppy journalism.

The danger of publishing unverified information made headlines recently, after CNBC correspondent Eamon Javers published a story that claimed Mitt Romney’s former employer, Bain & Company, was a consultant during the auto company bailouts overseen by the Obama Administration.

The story was pulled after Bain’s PR president challenged the connection, claiming it was incorrect and demanding a retraction, to which CNBC promptly abided. But then it was learned that the report was correct, and that the correction was wrong, as Craig Silverman notes on Poynter.com. So Javers wrote another story, but not before the webomino effect ravaged the blogosphere, claiming CNBC didn’t operate by basic journalistic principles of fact verification.

Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik was one of the more outspoken critics, Silverman notes.  Even after the original story was proven correct, many remained convinced that CNBC's failure to properly verify the fact was its cardinal sin. 

Within the firestorm of criticism, there is an interesting dichotomy: What if Javers had contacted Bain & Company successfully before he wrote the first story, but the company lied to him about the connection, as they obviously did in their retaliation to his story?