After a pair of back-to-back plagiarism allegations, both against seasoned and respected reporters, the Journal Register Company, a media corporation that owns over a dozen papers, decided to take a more aggressive stance on the issue of attribution in journalism.
However, the answer wasn’t to publish a new set of guidelines, institute a new plagiarism checking service or even hold a new training session. According to Poynter, the response came in the form of a short, five-question quiz designed to test how well reporters understood attribution and how they handled difficult areas.
The goal of the quiz, which you can see here, is simple: To both determine which reporters may have misconceptions about attribution and to get reporters on record as knowing right from wrong.
According to the company’s director of community engagement, Steve Buttry, this method was chosen over more traditional means of handling a rise in plagiarism issues, such as holding staff meetings, to both ensure 100% attendance and to target the attention on reporters who need the most help.
Basically, the survey is designed to address how to correctly attribute material in five different scenarios and raise a lot of gray area questions such as how to use press releases, cite competitors and so forth. The survey is required of all staff of the company and those reporters who missed just one question are required to attend a training session on plagiarism and attribution.
But is this a good approach? It’s tough to say but it certainly is a novel one and one that other media companies are likely to mimic.
My Thoughts on the Quiz
All in all, looking through the quiz and trying it for myself, it certainly seemed to be a good summary of the issues a journalist might face in this area, at least as much as can be put in a 5 question survey.
However, the multiple choice survey seemed to be a bit too easy. The range of options always had a clearly best or at least safest answer. Even if I knew almost nothing about attribution I would be able to get the right answers just by making the safest choice possible.
The other problem, and one that the company admits, is that this quiz can’t weed out bad actors and people who know better but maliciously plagiarize. How many cases of journalism plagiarism are mistakes versus malicious remain to be seen, but this might help us get a better idea, especially if more cases of plagiarism pop up at the company.
In the end, this is a novel approach. I like how easy it is to get to all of the employees and the questions themselves are pretty good, if a bit easy to answer (at least to give the “safest” answer). Mostly though, it gets the reporters thinking and reengaged on this issue and, as was pointed out, gets them on record as knowing right from wrong.
While I’m unsure what impact it will have without other action, such as plagiarism spot checking, it will definitely be a useful case study to follow, especially over the next few years to see if the problem of plagiarism arises again at the company.