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Plagiarism's Meaning Shifts in Digital Age

By Ben L. Kaufman · December 21st, 2011 · On Second Thought
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If Poynter Online director Julie Moos is correct, I’m a plagiarist.

I sometimes use others’ words in this column. While attributing the words and ideas to the original writers, I don’t always put their words inside quote marks. That’s not good enough for Moos.

It was his failure to maintain that level of attribution purity that drove out veteran aggregator Jim Romenesko from the Poynter website. He always told us where he got his material but he sometimes used those sources’ language without direct quotes.

That was insufficient attribution, Moos said in an online criticism. It was Cronus devouring his children online. Embarrassed, Romenesko walked. Too bad. He pulled together a valuable daily report on the news industry from myriad sources, all of whom he identified.

Others at Poynter, an in-service training center for journalists with a strong program in practical ethics, are producing what used to be his column. Since then, he has recreated his blog as jromenesko.com.

Sillier than his public humiliation was holding Romenesko to the same standard as reporters. Romenesko did little if any original reporting. One might even venture that he wasn’t offering himself as a journalist. As with so many aggregator sites — Huffington Post, Daily Beast, etc. — he offered bites of others’ reporting.

So do I, especially in my Curmudgeon Notes. I tell you my sources because they give what I write its authority. I tell you because attribution is one of the essential ethical standards of my trade. I don’t put everything quoted in quote marks because there often are quotes within the works. Quote/subquote/subsubquote can leave a reader wondering who said what. I use direct quotes when that level of attribution is vital. If I err, mea culpa. It’s accidental or carelessness.

I began collecting stories alleging plagiarism weeks ago. Recently, it came close to home. Former Cincinnati Post cartoonist Jeff Stahler quit The Columbus Dispatch after critics said three of his cartoons were too similar to New Yorker cartoons.

Before that, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that humorist Andy Borowitz asked why a Stahler cartoon was so similar to a fake headline he had written a few days before. Responding to that query, Dispatch editor Marrison said, ‘It appears to be a coincidence.’ Stahler told The Daily Cartoonist that the similarity with his cartoon Monday also was a coincidence.”

Poynter’s Myers continued, Syndicated cartoonist Chip Bok told Poynter.org that he thought a heavy workload could be to blame, saying, “Jeff doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to me who would deliberately plagiarize a cartoon.” New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff told The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna, “My guess is Stahler came up with the idea completely independently … I see things like this every week with different cartoonists.”

Myers added, “Tulsa cartoonist David Simpson resigned after being accused of plagiarism. That, too, was revealed by The Daily Cartoonist’s Alan Gardner; he says the same person raised questions about Stahler’s work and Simpson’s.”

By the time Myers wrote that, The Daily Cartoonist complained about “the most blatant plagiarism example I’ve ever seen,” in which Urban Tulsa Weekly’s David Simpson redrew a cartoon from the late Jeff MacNelly. Simpson has resigned his position with Urban Tulsa Weekly. Poynter says Simpson lost his job at The Tulsa World in 2005 for plagiarism.

Most accusations of plagiarism involve reporting, and online sites aren't immune. Take this recent example from Poynter:

“Reporter Kendra Marr resigned . . . after New York Times writer Susan Stellin alerted Politico editors to similarities between her transportation policy story published Sept. 26 and Marr’s story published Oct. 10 . . . Poynter said Politico editors discovered incidents in which ‘specific turns of phrase or passages … bore close resemblance to work published elsewhere. Others involved similarities in the way stories were organized to present their findings’.”

A phrase can be recycled without attribution because of a memory lapse or a flawed cut and paste, but some dim bulbs are lifting stories, columns or whole paragraphs even as the Internet increases the risks of getting caught. So I listen and read with an open mind and a sick feeling when plagiarism is blamed on growing demands for speed and quantity. This industry-wide pressure was explored by Pamela Moreland in Online Journalism Review. Here is part of what she wrote about the Kendra Marr/Politico plagiarism I cited above:

“Sure, the player has to shoulder the blame. But I blame the game, too. These days, chances are shrinking for an ambitious journalist to get a job that pays a middle-class salary with benefits. Young journalists no longer have the luxury of making mistakes out of the spotlight. If you want a job, you have to go directly into the big leagues. More likely than not, your job will be on the growing digital media side of the business. The side, to be polite, that is more like the Wild West than reasoned halls of journalism school . . . Don't get me started about cutting and pasting.

Yes, I can understand how someone can cut and paste reference material on the wrong take . . . and, in the rush to deadline, forget what is yours and what belongs to someone else. These days it's just too easy to make a series of career-ending errors early in the game. But the game deserves blame, too . . . In the world of Web journalism, lightly-sourced material is pretty much the norm. Whether it's an advocate using crowd-sourcing to flesh out a tip, a reader passing along a rumor, or a pro filing a single-source anecdote to make another blog entry, much of what the audiences reads online just isn't sourced the same way as traditional newspaper or magazine articles.”

Moreland quotes teachers/critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel calling this kind of reporting "the journalism of assertion" rather than a journalism based on verification. I’d add this: Traditional ethics considers verification and attribution to be vital, not simply important. That’s what I teach in my UC journalism ethics classes. It’s also why I pioneered journalism ethics classes in this area years ago. Young journalists — especially female and minority journalists — were being promoted so fast that they were being denied the luxury of learning from mistakes.

Curmudgeon Notes:

• According to Poynter’s Mark Fitzgerald, California writer Dan Kimber lost his newspaper column for plagiarism but found a home as a blogger on a local Patch site. (Patch.com describes itself as a “a community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities . . . Patch is run by professional editors, writers, photographers and videographers who live in or near the communities we serve, and is supported by a great team in our New York City headquarters.” )

The Glendale News-Press said a Kimber column “largely duplicated” someone else’s work. Poynter’s Fitzgerald said that was the original incident and the column was discontinued. A later editor’s note said an investigation had found instances of plagiarism in 20 percent of Kimber’s columns dating back to the beginning of 2009. In his published “contrition,” Kimber wrote, “I was careless, I got lazy and it was dishonest.”

Nicole Charky, the local Patch editor for Montrose and La Crescenta, told Poynter that she welcomed Kimber because “Patch is a forum for the entire community.” There’s a difference between Patch articles and blogs, Charky writes: “Patch articles are written by trained and paid journalists. Articles are subject to journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, originality and ethics and are edited to conform to those standards. We own them and we are responsible for them. . . Bloggers own their blogs. They are responsible for what’s in them, and they are free to say what they like. Patch simply provides a platform …(W)e hope he doesn’t plagiarize anyone. If we find out he has, we will take his blog down. If you happen to find out that he has plagiarized anything, we hope you’ll let us know.”

• Even Russia has a plagiarism scandal. London Guardian’s Miriam Elder writes that “Since her expulsion from the U.S. last year for spying, Anna Chapman has reinvented herself as an entrepreneur, TV personality, and cheerleader for the Kremlin . . . Now she faces claims that she plagiarized a controversial Kremlin spin doctor in the column she writes for a tabloid newspaper. Prominent bloggers say Chapman copied almost word for word a passage from a book by Oleg Matveyechev in her article for the mass market Komsomolskaya Pravda on Alexander Pushkin, Russia's most revered poet."

• Missing from Mark Curnutte’s Enquirer mini-series on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Sunday was The Enquirer’s culpability in the financial slide into insolvency. From Day One, The Enquirer was on the museum’s team, from housing its startup next to the publisher’s office to discouraging stories that deviated from the upbeat boosterism and incurious party line. Read admissions by museum leaders of inept planning, gross overstaffing, wildly unreal attendance projections, etc., then go back and try to find stories and editorials persistently raising doubts before the museum opened. Curnutte’s not to blame for those fundamental, early journalistic failures. It wasn’t his story back then.

• Nonpartisan polls continue to find Fox News misleading Americans. No wonder. Recently, a map confused Nevada and Utah, a lineup of GOP presidential contenders substituted Obama’s photo for Romney and a chart misrepresented employment figures to Obama’s detriment.

• Now, a break for good news. Nick Clooney is one of four persons chosen for the 2012 class of "Great Living Cincinnatians," the highest honor of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce. In the 1970s and '80s, Nick pulled together and ran the most talented local TV news staff I’ve known in the 40-plus years we’ve lived here. He did other stuff, including a column for The Post, but it was Nick at the anchor desk and that strong WKRC-TV team that mattered most. We still benefit from his hires.

• Other than a few journalists and locals who think the sun revolves around Cincinnati, no one cares about the brawling UC basketball players. Now, four of those UC players won’t even have to “work” for their free rides for a while. Meanwhile, why doesn’t UC give their scholarships to four top UC journalism students who’ve never embarrassed the school, their teachers or themselves and stand a better chance of graduating than the brawler.

• I’ve written about dim bulbs among British police harassing photographers (think Parliament, Big Ben, London Bridge, Trafalgar Square), but the latest episode exceeds my low expectations. London’s Daily Mail quotes a lawyer for teenager Jules Mattsson who photographed an Armed Forces Day parade through Romford in East London.

“Despite the public event taking place in the middle of the town centre, Metropolitan Police officers claimed it was unlawful to photograph the parade. The officers, led by an inspector, insisted he stop taking photographs. The inspector told (Jules) he was a public hazard and said that photographing in public was 'anti-social behaviour'. He described the act of taking photographs as 'silly' and 'gay' and 'stupid''. When (Jules) continued to state the lawfulness of his behaviour, the inspector declared it was 'dangerous' as he was 'likely to be trampled on by soldiers' from the parade’.”

The Daily Mail then quoted Chez Cotton, head of the police misconduct department in the law firm representing Mattsson: “The police had no legal power to stop him photographing in a public place. The inspector attempted to justify his actions in shocking and absurd ways. The treatment of the police towards our client, a 15-year-old, was shocking. The inspector's comments were designed to belittle. Our client politely and reasonably maintained that the police were not entitled to interfere with his right to report. In response, the inspector used serious anti-terrorism legislation, cynically telling Mr Mattsson 'I consider you a threat under the Terrorism Act, young man. I've had enough'. The police have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what journalists record.

“It is unacceptable that the police interfered with (Jules') right to report in any event, but for officers to attempt to intimidate a young reporter in this way is deplorable. It is right the commissioner has promptly apologised and paid a suitable level of damages.”

Let me add: British forces frequently parade through city centers, especially returning combat units. Flag-waving crowds commonly line the curbs. “Anti-social behavior” is a catch-all offense that can lead to enforceable Anti-Social Behavior Orders, which forbid whatever offends someone. The Terrorism Act has been used to stop tourists and others from taking lawful photos in public or taking them into custody and confiscating cameras and/or memory cards.

• Another example of police apparently using a phony arrest to harass journalists has been outed by omnipresent videos. The City Maven says “Video has surfaced of a City News Service reporter’s arrest by Los Angeles police officers as he tried to leave the Occupy LA encampment the night it was cleared out by cops and it appears to contradict the authorities’ original version of events. In a video shot that night by Alex Mannone and posted to The Occupied Venice Journal, CNS reporter Calvin Milam can be seen on Spring Street facing west — away from the encampment — as he shows police officers his LAPD press credential. He then crosses the police line that ran up and down Spring Street between Temple and First. As he does so, he is brought to the ground by a number of officers in riot gear.”

City Maven said police claimed reporter Milam was drunk and belligerent. An LAPD lieutenant said Milam didn’t identify himself as a journalist. LAPD Commander Andrew Smith blamed miscommunication between the arresting officers and Media Relations for the difference between LAPD’s original account and the video.

• Bad habits don’t die and some NYPD cops also don’t give a shit who videos them, according to The Capital website. After repeated dust-ups with reporters and photographers during Occupy Wall Street, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told officers to avoid interfering with journalists. His internal message said "Supervisors may restrict access to an incident scene only in those exceptional circumstances where it is absolutely necessary for law enforcement or public order purposes."

Fuhgeddaboudit. In a video on capitalnewyork.com, police intentionally block freelance photojournalist Robert Stolarik who covered a recent demonstration at the World Financial Center for The New York Times. Capitalnewyork.com said “Stolarik's confrontation with police . . . is the latest instance in a string of events that have strained police-press relations, which began to deteriorate as early as last summer, before Occupy Wall Street had even entered the picture. Stolarik told The Village Voice that his press pass ‘was clearly visible and (the officer) was very aware. That guy clearly didn't follow the departmental directive from Kelly’."

• Savvy journalists prepare for deaths of newsworthy public figures and officials. Drafts obituaries are written, images are chosen, and plans are made for staffing the death, mourning and funeral. It can go awry when cultures clash as they did with the discovery of AP and Reuters TV cameras overlooking 93-year-old Nelson Mandela’s house. Public furor forced removal of the cameras.

But Paul Colford, an AP spokesman, told London’s Guardian: "They are not surveillance cameras. Along with other media, the AP has preparedness around Mr. Mandela's eventual passing. The AP cameras were not switched on and would only be used in the event of a major news story involving the former president. We had similar preparedness outside the Vatican ahead of Pope John Paul II's passing."

The episode illustrated a culture clash between strongly held views of decorum around death and what can appear the cold pragmatism of competitive media bracing for the inevitable, The Guardian said. Or, as Justice Malala, a political commentator, told the British daily, "Culturally, black South Africans are very deferential on the subject of death. It's always, 'We don't talk about it.' We think we're softening the blow. The possible imminent passing away of someone in the village is always couched in euphemisms.”

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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