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.

What is plagiarism?

Grammar and literary-ethics expert Diane Hacker established a generally accepted definition of plagiarism used in academia:

Two different acts are considered plagiarism: (1) borrowing someone’s ideas, information or language without documenting the source, and (2) documenting the source but paraphrasing the source’s language too closely, without using quotation marks to indicate that words and phrases have been borrowed.

These definitions of plagiarism seem straightforward, but claiming a work is a product of someone else’s text can be difficult to prove. A copy-and-paste job is clearly plagiarism, and, depending on how it’s used and if it negatively affects the original source in a meaningful way, could also be considered copyright infringement. A reworded article, or patchwriting from someone else’s work, is also an act of plagiarism.

Patchwriting has become ubiquitous in the Internet age. As Syracuse Professor Rebecca Moore Howard notes, patchwriting is “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym-substitutes."

Patchwriting “is plagiarism regardless of whether one supplies footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes that acknowledge the source,” Howard writes in her 1995 book, "Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty". But she also notes that patchwriting is not necessarily committed by people with no moral compass, but rather by people attempting to enter a new and unfamiliar realm of discourse. Howard, however, limits her pedagogy solely to academia, and does not examine patchwriting implications in journalism or in commercial society.

If we use Howard's logic, this could mean that even if the guy who stole my yarmulke-sporting burglar story had sourced me, he would still be committing plagiarism. Even if he "acknowledge[d] the source," he would still be committing an ethical crime. And perhaps a legal one. 
But a modern journo might say, isn't that aggregation? Haven't the rules changed? Aren't we all reporting on what other news sources are reporting?

The short answer is likely yes, things have changed. But that doesn't mean we should throw out the baby with the bath water. There is still a such thing as intellectual property, tricky as it may be. And, beyond that, there is thing called professional courtesy. Respect. Ultimately, it's not about who did what first or what belongs to whom. It's about recognizing the work of your peers, and respecting it by not taking substantial portions of it. 

It's as simple as saying "Thank you" to someone who just cooked you a meal (and not eating the entire meal, leaving others unfed), or giving credit to the person who came up with the new product that you have successfully pitched (and give them credit for the entirety of their work, not just the aspects that you can easily defer). 

It's not a complicated thing. It's just being honest. Simple as that. It's just that people are losing any sense of professional courtesy. Honesty seems lost to attention-seeking. Respect went bye-bye as instant gratification took hold. And we're all losing because of it. 

On the legal side, the Internet has complicated the already convoluted domain of copyright law because cyberspace transcends international boundaries. Can you sue a program or bot that scours the Web stealing content? Can you even find who’s running the program? If you find that person, what legal recourse do you have, especially if that person lives in a country that's not a signatory to international agreements, such as the Berne Convention? 
The creation of the Internet spawned a legal and moral imbroglio of epic proportions that both ethical professionals and amoral content-scrapers alike wade through with blind hope to reach equilibrium; as if the sheer weight of ambiguity and the unknown is enough to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Copious gray space exists in the electronic ether, and it can be impossible to decipher what’s real from what's manufactured, not to mention the infinite number of combined truths and manipulations. 

Stealing vs. borrowing
T.S. Eliot makes the following often-paraphrased (and plagiarized) analysis on literary theft during his critique of poet Philip Massinger: 
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.
Pablo Picasso is credited with a similar, and equally as famous, statement: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” (although it’s unclear whether Picasso pilfered Eliot’s sentiment or vice versa or neither; perhaps both were merely innovators in postmodern predilection).

Certainly there is a fine line between an homage and a copy, and poetic thievery can arguably be considered less dangerous than journalistic theft because the former deals with creative expression whereas the later expresses information.

Journalism is the blue-collar sibling of the arts. To be a journalist requires a sense of creativity to find compelling angles through which to tell a story, or to see hidden connections between subjects that initially seem unrelated. Journalism marries art and science because it must inform people of the facts, but be engaging during that process. A journalist must be creative with words and word play while always focusing on the core, fact-based elemental truths of a story.

When a journalist is plagiarized, it attacks the effort of investigation, the hidden connections that were brought to light and the conclusions drawn by gathering of the facts. It attacks the integrity of the profession. It's disrespectful. It's rude. It's dishonest. It needs to stop. 

Next week, Saving Ethical Journalism will dive further into the culture of word-napping on the web.

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