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SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers

Never plagiarize.

That is a simple, clear statement in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics that leaves no room for ambiguity.

The digital age we’re currently in offers both the most opportunities to verify the authenticity of original work and also misuse it without giving credit to the original reporting source.

With databases, Web searches and other online research, it has never been easier to research the source of a story or other original material. On college campuses, for example, students who choose to plagiarize and buy a term paper or have someone else write it for them (the same work also submitted by others), can be caught much more easily than 30 years ago.

News outlets are under constant pressure, 24/7, to create content. Most outlets now are multi-platform, so the traditional broadcast news outlet is looking for content for its website, and may take something from another news site without crediting the original source in haste for getting that content posted.

And reporters are working on a freelance basis more and more frequently, not subjected to or sometimes aware of news outlets’ ethical guidelines. Sometimes not having that regular touch point for reinforcement may lead to laziness. Whether inadvertent or deliberate, there is no excuse for plagiarism.

A clear way to avoid this is to attribute information in stories and actually know the subject matter well so you can explain it in your own words without relying on someone else.

Integrity and credibility, two of the most important values in journalism, demand that all media outlets be clear about the source of stories they did not produce. Failure to follow that guideline results in plagiarism, a former Ethics Committee chairman wrote several years ago in criticizing the Hartford Courant for using stories from other Connecticut newspapers without giving them credit.

The most prominent case of plagiarism in recent memory is Jayson Blair at The New York Times (a case study about this is in “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media,” 4th Edition, published in 2011 by SPJ and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.) The case raises issues not only of Blair’s behavior, but a lack of oversight by his editors. In this ever increasing bottom-line newsroom culture where veterans are laid off or forced to retire and are replaced with less-experienced journalists at much lower salaries, the lessons of the Blair fiasco should remain at the forefront, not fade into some distant memory.

Journalists should be proud of their skills and their voice. They should let their own words speak for them, rather than those of others.

Some of the most simple, straightforward and fundamental principles are ones that unfortunately need repeating. SPJ admonishes all journalists to take special care so that proper attribution is given at all times.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the committee by member Lauren Bartlett, who also serves on the 2010-12 national SPJ board of directors.

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