Journalists: It’s Time to Get In Front of Plagiarism

NewspapersIt’s been a rough summer for journalists. Even putting aside the larger troubles in the for mainstream media publications, journalism has taken a series of credibility blows as Jason Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and now Margaret Wente all became mainstream plagiarism scandals. However, there’s also been at least a dozen smaller, lesser-known ones that have hit The Boston Globe, NPR and two Arizona newspapers.

The summer has been so rough that Craig Silverman at Poynter has called it “The Summer of Sin” and it’s a fitting name.

But what baffles me is that publications, ranging from major publications to small websites have failed to get more proactive on the issue. Almost all of the movement by the industry since the Jayson Blair scandal has been toward finding better ways to react or deal with discovered plagiarism. This included establishing public editor positions at various papers, codifying the process handling complaints and setting up protocols for dealing with Jayson Blair-like scandals.

But with fact checking and plagiarism checking being as easy as it is right now, journalists, as Wente put it, are under a microscope and being reactive to these issues is no longer enough.

If journalism, as an industry, is going to head off another “Summer of Sin”, publications need to get more proactive on these matters and that is going to mean making some difficult decisions.

Can Your Publication Afford a Jonah Lehrer?

Whenever people start talking about publications getting more proactive about plagiarism and other ethical issues, the usual response, especially from those in the industry, is that they can’t afford it. Between the costs of any technology they use, the labor they need to do even spot checking of articles and the delays such efforts will cause, many feel it’s too much to ask.

There’s a lot of sense in this. Mainstream media is in a period of retraction and any new expense is a tough sell. New media, on the other hand, is still in a fledging phase, already struggling to do a great deal with a very small staff and budget.

The problem, however, is that the alternative is much worse. With plagiarism detection and fact-checking so simple to do and easy to crowdsource, every publication has to assume that everything they put out is likely to be scrutinized and that the glare is only going to increase as they gain popularity, trust and respect.

Unfortunately. The tools for detecting plagiarism all work much better when used before publication than after. For example, it’s much easier to spot sentences copied without attribution before an article is published and you dont’ have to weed through the later copies of that work. Likewise, it’s easier to fact check something before the the bad information takes on a life of its own on the Web.

While those with adequate free time and interest can work through those challenges, especially when there is a known list of sources to check against, the process is much easier and more accurate when done before content has been released into the wild.

This makes it so that the cost of doing a post-mortem on a case of suspected plagiarism much more expensive and difficult than simply doing checks as you go. This says nothing about dealing with the loss of trust, loyalty and prestige that comes from having to deal with a plagiarism scandal post publication.

In short, if you’re going to catch a plagiarism or other unethical act, accidental or otherwise, the time to do it is before the work goes out into the public. That is when it’s both easiest and most useful.

Your alternative is to risk having to perform a much more difficult analysis while under the fire of a PR disaster. This is something that most publications can’t do and, as The Globe and Mail is showing with the Margaret Wente scandal, even larger publications struggle to get it right.

Getting Active and Getting Serious

The reason for this shift in climate is simple. The Internet changed the relationship between the journalist and his or her audience.

Previously, if a reporter was found to have been plagiarizing or engaging in other unethical behavior, the person who would discover it was likely either in house or at another paper. The matter would be handled internally and, though the reporter would be handled harshly, the public would hear hardly nothing about it other than a correction or a follow up letter.

Today, people have the ability and desire to talk back to and report on their reporters. Most such scandals are in the public almost immediately, posted on blogs, shared on social media and, eventually, winding up in other mainstream outlets.

It’s no longer just editors watching reporters, it’s everyone.

This gives editors the unenviable task of trying to protect reporters from their new bosses. While technology is often touted as the answer, it is only part of it. Any real solution needs to be holistic and work in multiple parts.

  1. Education: Though most journalists are more than qualified for their job, constant education and reinforcement of journalism ethics is crucial. For example, after a pair of plagiarism scandals, the Journal Register Company use a quiz to help find which reporters might need more help with these issues.
  2. Communication: Journalists creating content need to be able to seek out help and work out problems with others. This is a function of editors that is often being lost as cutbacks are made at various institutions.
  3. Technology: Technology, including plagiarism detection software, is part of the solution, but it is best used when everyone has access to it and reporters can check their work. Editors can not bear the responsibility of finding issues on their own.
  4. Observation: Keeping an eye open for issues and being vigilant against them is crucial. This includes spot checking work, even when no unethical behavior is suspicion, as well as keeping an eye out for struggling contributors and taking action..
  5. Preparation: Finally, should something be discovered, either internally or by someone else, how will it be handled and who will do it? Having a good plan in place in advance makes even the worst situation easier. Poynter has a great article with a basic outline for such a plan.

In short, it’s a combination of humans and technology that prevent these problems but, unfortunately, it’s a solution few are willing to invest in.

Bottom Line

In the end, the biggest advantage “mainstream” media has over “new” media is its reputation. Why do we value the opinions of the New York Times more than a random blog? Why is the New Yorker better than a post on social media? It’s about trust and reputation.

These scandals, however, are eroding that trust, especially when the publication involved handles it badly.

However, these scandals don’t just hurt the publication they happen at. They reflect badly on all mainstream media, even the publications that have done a great job.

That being said, Web-based media has a great deal to worry about too. Trust in it as a news source is still growing and delicate and with many authors, like Jonah Lehrer, writing for multiple publications the same problems can strike anyone and damage a great deal of hard work.

No matter what kind of publication you work for, now is the time to get ahead of this issue and prevent catastrophe down the road. In addition to spending more money on clean up than prevention, doing so helps earn trust and makes a publication more valuable.

That value is what will bring the readers to you and help you compete in a very difficult climate.

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