Of lazy journalists and wanton plagiarism

As a teacher, I have spent a lot of time reading up on, thinking about, and debating plagiarism. Where is the line between being inspired by someone else’s work and the theft of intellectual property? It’s not always so easy to figure out.
Toronto Star logoOn the other hand, as my friend and colleague Randy Cassingham can attest, sometimes plagiarism is so glaring that it’s almost embarassing for the other party. And if it’s a national news publication that’s stealing content, well, the best I can say is that it’s just another mark against the so-called journalism professional.
Here’s the story…

Randy writes the hilarious This Is True, a nationally syndicated newspaper column that’s also available via email (which is how I’ve subscribed for years). If you’re familiar with News of the Weird, then you’ll appreciate that This is True is really NotW done right, at least in my opinion.
Anyway, Randy’s been finding interesting stories in the news and adding his own wry and amusing commentary for years and years. Last month he reran an earlier story from 1995 that was focused on typographical mistakes in newspapers. Turns out that this story had been picked up by various newspapers — without them bothering to pay for the syndicated column — and they were found out. But not by Randy, by Regret the Error, a newspaper blog, which has the gory details in its entry Toronto Star and two other papers lift decade-old item, run it as new.
Next thing Randy knew, the industry leading magazine Editor & Publisher picked up the story, writing in this story that:
“Today, [Craig] Silverman [of Regret the Error] carries an unusually lengthy report on a very old item that came back into circulation and ended up as “news” report in at least three widely scattered newspapers. ”
Plagiarism? You bet. You should go and read the original article from Silverman and you’ll see that it’s unconscionable – and embarassing – that major publications like the Toronto Star have been caught stealing content without paying its original source.
In an era where citizen journalists are fighting with professional journalists for the right to say that they’re the future of information reporting and analysis, every time a journalist trips up, I can’t help but question the very premise of the debate, that professional journalists are the professionals, who fact check, use duplicate sources, have editors, and, of course, always cite their sources. Or do they?
I asked Randy for his perspective on this situation too, since he’s quite plugged in to the online world, and here’s what he said:
“This is basic journalism school stuff — full-time reporters backed by professional editors should be able to recite the rules in their sleep. It’s fundamental to the job: you don’t take facts without attribution, and you don’t plagiarize — period!
“I was fairly shocked when I saw it. First, that they would run with an item they found on the Internet without getting corroboration. Second, that they would take an item from a syndicated columnist and publish it without permission or attribution. And third, that they
would take my commentary on the item and use it as their own, as if they had written it. The first is foolish; the second is ethically shaky; the third is plain plagiarism — there’s no nicer word for it.
“Is it serious? Let’s see: they didn’t just lift facts, which is allowable (but maybe unethical, if they don’t give attribution), but they used someone else’s words and ideas and sold them as their own. That’s not just unprofessional, it’s highly unethical, and it could be argued that it’s literally illegal according to copyright law. Even if it wasn’t illegal, I don’t think anyone would argue that doing something that’s unprofessional and unethical is anything but quite serious.
“What’s shocking is that newspapers are really up against the wall these days when it comes to ethics. Newspapers are losing more and more readers, and this is a good example why: if people can’t trust what they read in newspapers, they’ll go elsewhere. And they are. Newspapers simply can’t afford to have lax ethics; they should be setting the standard, because as we have seen time and time again, including in this case, it’s ridiculously easy to get caught.”
I couldn’t agree more, Randy. It’ll be interesting to see how the Toronto Star deals with the situation.

6 comments on “Of lazy journalists and wanton plagiarism

  1. This is one of those stories that gets more complicated the deeper you probe.
    In just the few minues I’ve poked around, I already have more comments than I feel like typing here today.
    The Toronto Star has already removed the story. Their web site says it has been “purged” if you search for “moon god”.
    Is the issue that Reuter [SIC] was not attributed as the source in the Star version or that Mr. Cassingham wants attribution for a story that he promoted, but didn’t write himself? Yes, he wrote the title and a one-line comment at the end that the Star took, but the other two papers didn’t steal his line or title and DID attribute to either Reuters or This is True.
    Mr. Cassingham’s version of the story doesn’t match the literal text given in Regret the Error, suggesting that somewhere along the way, SOMEBODY (either Mr. Cassingham or some other parties unknown) rewrote the original Reuter [SIC] story. At a minimum, Mr. Cassingham is not properly quoting or attributing the version of the story he ran in 1995.
    What normal person would expect fact checking and detailed attribution for a story that *seems* like it may have originally been written as a joke anyway? Does/did Moon God Drinking really exist? Maybe the do/did, but did any of you *check*? Reuters has a sterling reputation, but that’s still no guarantee.
    The detailed story (given in Regret the Error as opposed to Mr. Cassingham’s modified version) notes that the typo bounty was “a publicity stunt for the company”. That message was *not* conveyed in Mr. Cassingham’s version of the story. In other words, the version he ran was *seriously* misleading. Again, we don’t know if that was his fault or some other party who rewrote the story before he got it.
    Plagiarism is a serious issue, but merely retelling a humorous story hardly seems the like the most beneficial place to push the issue.
    The Toronto Star seems to be the only problematic case here, and they’ve already reacted, at least partially.
    I would presume that all of the big papers have licensed access to the major wire services (like Reuters), so there wouldn’t be the issue of “without paying its original source” (Reuter/Reuters). We still have the mystery of Mr. Cassingham’s variant of the “original” story text, but he explicitly attributed it to “(Reuters)”, so he has essentially given up claim to ownership of that portion of the text. His title and comment at the end are still his, but only the Star stole those.
    Out of curiosity, does Mr. Cunningham have a business relationship with Reuters that licenses him to run/rerun Reuters stories? Is he running a story “without paying its original source”?
    By all means we should expect that the Toronto Star should apologize for any plagiarism or errors in judgment, but in this case the offense seems like hardly more than a parking violation than a major felony.
    We should also expect Mr. Cassingham to be a little more forthright about how he got his variant of the “original” Reuter [SIC] story.
    Out of curiosity, does anybody know how much it does cost to get a license from Reuters to run their stories on non-MSM media web sites?
    — Jack Krupansky

  2. Plagiarism is an obsolete concept.
    It will be overwhelmed by the universal “cut and paste” capability built into the internet.
    Each generation of information is an integration of information that has come before.
    Trying to determine what percent of each of today’s information units is attributable to specific information units that have come before is impossible.
    We should recognize and give credit to those who have contributed to what we create as much as possible, but controlling this evolution isn’t possible.

  3. “Cut and paste” is plagiarism by its digital interface nomenclature.
    I could say I “dip and peel”, meaning I stick my hand in your pocket and take your wallet, but “dip and peel” sounds so much nicer.
    While information does indeed beget information, as text generates text, still, stealing remains a simple principle.
    To say that the online computerized environment is somehow immune to, racing beyond, or outpacing ethics is a non-ethical statement at best, amorality at worst.
    Taking something whole or in part, and claiming, implying or presenting it as your own is plagiarism. Quoting and other citing is fine, as long as it’s with proper credits, typed URLS, and direct hyperlinks to the source material.
    I agree with the view that if you quote an entire article from another site, you must at least provide your own commentary or analysis or opinions, to make a new entity of the information, rather than just say: “This is cool. Check this out…”

  4. Hi, Dave. Sorry to chime in late on this.
    I just wanted to share with you that when I also posted about this flap at the Poynter Institute’s E-Media Tidbits weblog (http://snipurl.com/ls0c), it drew a couple of dismissive comments. Specifically, I was making the point that this is an example of professional news organizations not being exactly stellar.
    This information was dismissed by two commenters as “merely anecdotal.” Hey, I expected that from an audience of mainstream journalists and editors.
    But then, a couple of days ago, I stumbled on this intriguing article: “The PR Playbook,” by Sharyl Attkisson, published Dec. 29, 2005 on CBSnews.com
    That article details the top 10 strategies PR professionals use to undermine or kill negative stories. Strategy #4, “Science sleight of hand,” mentions that you can undermine a story by claiming that its premise is “purely anecdotal.”
    True, anecdotes don’t constitute scientific proof, but as examples they can serve to undermine blanket statements or premises — such as, “Professional news organizations and journalists are more credible because they check their facts and they don’t plagiarize.”
    I just found it an amusing, if anecdotal, bit of serendipity. 🙂
    – Amy Gahran

  5. Any recommendations on where I can report plagiarism to news agencies? A newspaper I worked for had no problem lifting stories from Reuters without sourcing (I have since left the paper), as well as from blogs. What’s the word on copying blogs? Anyway, thought Reuters should know and get due credit.

  6. It will be overwhelmed by the universal “cut and paste” capability built into the internet.
    Each generation of information is an integration of information that has come before.
    Trying to determine what percent of each of today’s information units is attributable to specific information units that have come before is impossible.
    We should recognize and give credit to those who have contributed to what we create as much as possible, but controlling this evolution isn’t possible.

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