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.
On 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.