Ken Perkins: Plagiarist or Scapegoat?

There’s little question that Ken Perkins, former TV critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, resigned after plagiarism accusations began to surface about his writing for the paper. However, many have begun to wonder if Perkins was railroaded for his actions and whether or not he was simply caught in the crossfire of a much bigger battle.

While most agree that his actions were wrong, questions are arising as to whether or not the punishment was fair or just the product of a newspaper eager to look tough on ethics and prevent a major plagiarism scandal before it happened.

The Crime

The fact that Perkins plagiarized is hardly up for debate. Several lines from at least two stories were found to have been lifted from other sources. However, whether it was worth throwing away a nine-year career that spans hundreds of stories, the vast majority of which are not in question, over a few lines of background information is significantly more contentious.

In academia, this type of plagiarism wouldn’t even be noticed and, if it were, would be written off as coincidental. While most, including myself, feel that journalists should be held to much higher standards than your average student, it seems that the reaction against Ken was a bit over the top, especially as information about the exact quantity of material infringing comes to the surface.

The reaction becomes even more severe when one looks at the problems with the case against.

The Problems

First off, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was not exactly honest in regards to how it discovered the plagiarism. In its letter to the public, it states that a reader informed them of the misue. In truth, the “reader” was actually an editor for a competing newspaper, The Dallas Morning News.

While it’s not uncommon for competing papers to read each other very thoroughly, it is uncommon for them to find such serious ethical problems in each other’s paper. Though no one knows what exactly transpired when the paper was alerted to the problem, it seems to reason that the Star-Telegram was worried about a negative article appearing in the competing paper. While this was probably not a direct threat, it was definitely an understood possibility.

This, along with the other plagiarism scandals of late, motivated the Star-Telegram to go as hard as possible in Perkins. Driving him away, until he resigned.

Of course, the newspaper itself didn’t have a clear plagiarism policy. Like all papers, it took a very strong stand on the issue. However, it did a very poor job defining exactly what constitutes plagiarism, especially in shorter sentences. This has left some journalism experts scratching their heads as, in their opinion, Perkins “was not even close” to an infraction of the ethics code of his paper.

When it comes down to it, it appears as if the paper itself, not Perkins, might have the ethical dilemma.

Solutions

While no one wants to set hard rules for something as subjective as plagiarism, newspapers need to make their plagiarism policies more clear and, as I said earlier, invest heavily in plagiarism prevention. The tools are out there to help make newspapers plagiarism-free environments; they just have to be willing to seek them out.

Also, newspapers need to take a look at themselves and see if their actions are helping promote plagiarism. Everything from hiring practices to scheduling needs to be examined. Good reporters who don’t feel that they have to cut corners to meet deadlines area lot less to plagiarize than those that are constantly under the gun.

Even though tight deadlines are a part of the newsroom lifestyle, that much I know, there are limits to how much a person can do in a set amount of time.

Finally, the industry itself needs to take a look at how it cites sources. As of right now, there’s no easy way to cite short reuses of another’s work. In a three hundred word article, citing a source used for a couple of lines could become a problem.

Here, journalists need to take a lesson from bloggers and work on a way to cite in-line without adding too much copy. Through linking, the bloggers citation of choice, will not work in print media, perhaps each newspaper should have a footnotes section that each article can refer to with just a number and a symbol.

This might help reporters, such as Perkins, who want to reuse small samples of other people’s work from falling into the plagiarism trap.

As For Mr. Perkins…

In the end though, there is little doubt that what Perkins did was wrong and that he deserves some kind of punishment. But whether or not he deserved the journalism equivalent of a death sentence, resigning in shame for a plagiarism scandal, is up for debate.

Though newspapers can not tolerate plagiarism, they first need to define it effectively, take a proactive approach and deal with it in a manner that fits the crime.

In the end, what happened to Perkins was a knee-jerk reaction out of fear of another New York Times-style plagiarism scandal rather than rational thinking. It did no one any favors. The journalism profession suffered another embarrassing plagiarism scandal, copyright holders face an even more degraded respect for their intellectual property and Perkins will most likely never work at a news paper again.
Though the goal of stopping plagiarism is a noble one, it isn’t helped by overreacting and jumping to conclusions. The same as screaming fire every time you see a spark doesn’t help fight fires, crying plagiarism and assuming the worst every time copying is found doesn’t protect copyrights.

A middle ground has to be found.

[tags]Plagiarism, Journalism, Content Theft, Ethics, Copyright, Copyright Law, Media[/tags]

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