A Different Kind of Newspaper Plagiarism

News.com, which is managed by C|Net, recently reported on a rather unusual incident of plagiarism at the The Reidsville Review, a small North Carolina newspaper.

The newspaper, as many small town papers do, runs a “person on the street” column where they go out and ask local people a question and print their response underneath a photo of them. In this particular paper, this column is run every day and printed on the front page.

However, in at least one case, the quotes themselves were faked and the photos were stolen from Thefacebook.com, a college social networking site. Long story short, six people who had never been interviewed by the paper nor given permission to have their photos used in it had their images and names printed on the front page with quotes that they never said attributed to them.

Plagiarism, meet false reporting and slander.

What’s particularly discouraging about this case is that, to the best of my knowledge, nothing has happened to the reporter(s) responsible for the abuse. The newspaper has done nothing except to say that the matter has been handled “internally” and there’s no sign of an investigation into previous columns or any significant retribution against those responsible.

Having worked at a small newspaper before, I know that the atmosphere in these places tend to be rather “buddy-buddy ” and disciplining, even for serious infractions, is rare. I also know first hand that, unlike major newspapers who have ethics boards and policies in place, there’s virtually no system in place at smaller papers.

Still though, this is yet another huge dent to the credibility of mainstream journalism and a frightening bedtime story for the public at large.

After all, now we have to go to sleep at night with the realization that, right now, our pictures could be published in a newspaper, without our permission, with quotes we didn’t say attributed. It may not be as bad as having your credit cards stolen, but it’s identity theft all the same and the fact that the newspaper isn’t taking any sizeable action isn’t going to help me as I’m counting sheep.

It’s going to be a long night.

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