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Home > Publications > Quill > Plagiarism: Do we really understand it?


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Thursday, May 1, 2008
Plagiarism: Do we really understand it?

Andy Schotz

It’s the shortest line of guidance in the SPJ Code of Ethics:

“Never plagiarize.”

There’s no need to say more, one of my editors has said, referring to my newsroom’s similarly concise ethics code. Journalists should know plagiarism is a cardinal sin.

But I wonder if there’s enough talk about plagiarism today. Not just how wrong it is to copy someone else’s work, but the principles behind it.

Theft. Dishonesty. Laziness, too. They go against journalism’s core of pursuing truth.

I was intrigued by the spotlight on plagiarism when Sen. Barack Obama was embroiled in a feud-of-the-day with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton accused Obama of being mostly talk, with little action.

In his counterattack, Obama quoted from three famously powerful American speeches, punctuating each line with the phrase “Just words.”

It’s silly to fault Obama for not crediting “I have a dream” and “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He wasn’t claiming them as his own.

But shouldn’t we expect him to state plainly and clearly that the spiel — the quotes, the “just words” phrase, the grouping — wasn’t his? A simple disclaimer, such as “As my good friend Governor Patrick in Massachusetts has said ...” would have been enough.

A plagiarism allegation spurred one of the longer, more involved discussions the SPJ Ethics Committee has had in the past several months.

The complaint was made by a university student who devotes his blog to scrutinizing his campus newspaper. The bottom line was that the newspaper printed a story about a sophisticated topic that relied on someone else’s work.

The blogger wanted the Ethics Committee to stamp the newspaper with a scarlet P. Some committee members did, even after the blogger told us information he had omitted earlier: The work had been attributed, in a way.

Actually, the credit was weak. A paragraph in italics acknowledged “Information was taken from …” without explaining what. Because of an unusual page layout, chunks of text were sprinkled around, making it unclear which parts were tied to the paragraph with the vague attribution.

A defense by an editor at the paper was that his writer did it unintentionally, so it wasn’t plagiarism.

My intro level journalism textbook in college — for the sake of proper attribution, it’s the third edition of “News Reporting and Writing,” by a group at the University of Missouri at Columbia School of Journalism — seems to agree. It defines plagiarism as “The use of any part of another’s writing and passing it off as your own.”

By that standard, the editor might be right. But it’s essential to think more deeply.

Such as: Which material is yours, and which material isn’t?

How do you inform readers, whom you are trying to serve?

The Obama-Patrick defense was that they’re friends and freely borrow each other’s material. No harm intended.

But with his speech, wasn’t Obama letting listeners infer that his words were his own? Was that forthright?

I have long wondered about one peculiar form of borrowing, which I call the “Associated Press filter.”

Say the Metropolis Times reports on something of interest. The local AP bureau picks up the story, rewrites it some and puts it out on the wire. The Metropolis News, a competitor, then uses the AP account.

The News, in a real sense, has just grabbed the Times’ work and published it. AP often credits the original paper, but the second paper rarely includes the credit, unless it’s a significant enough scoop.

It’s legal, assuming both papers are AP members, but is it ethical? The News probably wouldn’t copy the story from the pages of the Times, but the “filter” makes the process clean.

Consider a definition posted online as part of the Medill School of Journalism Policy on Academic Integrity: “Plagiarism consists of intentionally or knowingly representing the words or ideas of another person as one’s own.”

I’ve heard college teachers say the Internet is dulling some students’ sense of what belongs to others. The Web becomes an all-you-can-borrow buffet, from which students fill their plates with whatever morsels fit the assignment at hand.

I’d be curious to hear from journalism teachers how fully they explore plagiarism in their classrooms.

Newsroom managers would be wise to broach the topic and its nuances with new hires and periodically with the whole staff.

As the SPJ Code of Ethics says, “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

Misrepresenting work is about more than “just words.”

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