Punditry Sunday: Newspaper Ethics

With not one(reg req.), not two, but three plagiarism scandals at major newspapers these past few weeks, one has to wonder if journalists, who have frequently bashed bloggers for supposed ethics problems, have fallen a little bit themselves. When print journalists, the cornerstone of American journalism, get caught plagiarizing with the frequency of your average college Freshman class, there’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

However, this isn’t just a problem for the brave souls that staff the nation’s newsrooms, it’s a problem that affects anyone who values their intellectual property. Whether you’re creating artwork, literature, music, marketing copy or anything in between, these scandals should concern you because their shockwave is going to be slowly, but surely, felt across the creative spectrum.

Why Not?

Journalists, supposedly, are the pinnacle of ethics. As a journalism student, I had the importance of maintaining integrity beat into me, not just in my law and ethics class, but every course I took. With military precision, my instructors, all former reporters in one capacity or another, reiterated the importance of checking everything, citing sources and maintaining neutrality.

Even people who have never sat in a journalism class before understand that journalists are held to the highest imaginable standards and know to look to them for guidance. So, when journalist after journalist gets struck down for plagiarism, the moral compass goes awry. Bloggers and other web journalists who look to the traditional media as something to be emulated become very confused and disillusioned.

Because, when people hear about these plagiarism scandals, they don’t follow up to see what happened to the reporter, they just link together the word “plagiarism” with the name of the paper and the person involved. As time goes on, more and more papers get tainted and, since it’s safe to assume that most journalists who plagiarize don’t get caught, it can seem as if the majority of reporters out there are actively stealing each other’s work.

The logic flows free from there, if a journalist can make a career of cut and paste, why shouldn’t another be able to make a Web site. “Whys” become “Why nots” and the moral compass, once merely drifting, starts pointing the wrong the way.

It’s a worst-case scenario that, hopefully, is a long ways off. Still, with the tattered reputation of journalism in the United States, it might be closer at hand than we think.

What the Papers Can Do

Newspapers are already taking a beating. Online news, television, blogs and even radio have pinched their readership. Ebay and Monster have made classifieds obsolete, online news has made the printed word dated and slow, television and flash animation have made static ads dull and the entire newspaper, on the surface, is nothing but a waste of otherwise good trees.

Newspapers could have ridden their moral high horse and maintain a smaller, but very devoted, readership comprised of people who want the whole story, accurately and fairly, all the while setting an example for the up and coming forms of journalism. Instead, the papers have watched as their names have been dragged through the mud, attached to one of journalism’s gravest sins and marred beyond repair.

If papers are going to stem this tide, they are going to have to be proactive. Even the best newspapers and best editors can’t prevent all instances of plagiarism, but they can borrow a hint from colleges and high schools, where the academic plagiarism war has been waging for years.

There, services such as turnitin.com provide an electronic line of defense against plagiarism. Even though teachers and professors would be better suited by creating plagiarism-proof assignments than performing searches, editors don’t have that luxury and such a barrier could go a long way shutting down at least the most flagrant plagiarists.

Also, there’s no reason that individuals reading newspapers should be the first to catch plagiarism. Reporters should be subject to random human plagiarism screenings as well as occasional plagiarism audits where past works are checked. Hopefully, this kind of strong policy will deter most plagiarists from seeking a position and prevent “weak moments” from destroying otherwise good careers.

After all, no one wants to do this kind of checking, however, it’s clearly no longer enough to simply trust reporters to follow the code of ethics laid upon them. The newspapers which profit from them have to pick up the slack if they’re to appear serious on issues of ethics.


As long as newspapers struggle to catch plagiarists after the fact and the integrity of the nation’s top journalists remains in question, all legitimate content creators will suffer. Though no one is solely to blame for the increase in plagiarism online, they certainly throw fuel on the fire and make my job that much tougher to do.

Newspapers have to get serious about preemptively enforcing their ethics policies and stopping these embarrassing scandals before they start. Otherwise, the damage could go way beyond the newspapers involved and could taint not only the notion of print journalism, but many of the ideas we hold about copyright.

It’s a scary prospect and not one I want to face.

[tags]Plagiarism, Journalism, Content Theft, Newspapers, Chronicle, Cartoons, Ethics[/tags]

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