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.