In 2012, I called on journalists and their institutions to get in front of the issue of plagiarism and to start being proactive about plagiarism.
The time for the conversation was ripe. It was just after the “Summer of Sin” that saw a wide range of plagiarism scandals including Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria, Margaret Wente and more.
But while the headlines haven’t been as great since then, there’s no doubt that plagiarism remains a major problem in journalism. In 2013 alone the Daily Mail was accused of plagiarizing a key interview with Emma Thompson, twice, the Washington Post faced serious allegations of plagiarism and, in my hometown of New Orleans, a popular staff column was removed from a weekly newspaper after some of the columns turned up plagiarized.
These are just three of countless examples of plagiarisms, retractions and embarrassments for journalism in 2013. Yet, despite the obvious warnings, most newspapers and other institutes of journalism have done little to prevent plagiarism amidst their ranks. In fact, the Washington Post removed its ombudsman, known for his tough stance on plagiarism, and replaced him with a weakened position that was filled for less than a year.
If anything, journalism seems to be retreating on the issue of plagiarism even as evidence mounts that it’s time to get more aggressive on the subject. So what’s going on? Why is the fourth estate backing down from one of its most serious ethical challenges?
There are many reasons for it but here are five of the key factors at play.
It’s no secret that these are tough times for newspapers and magazines. Layoffs are common, losses are rampant and many publications are either closing down or scaling back.
Dealing with plagiarism requires resources. Money to subscribe and implement detection tools, time for the editors to use them and arbitrators to deal with conflicts that these checks might raise.
In the modern journalism world, where seconds matter, reporters/editors are already stretched past their limits and budgets are being slashed to the bone, there just isn’t much room for any serious tracking of plagiarism.
While it’s clear that the costs aren’t as great as many think, and certainly less than the costs of dealing with a major scandal, it’s a tough sell right now to convince any newspaper to strengthen their anti-plagiarism efforts.
2. The Editor/Journalist Relationship
When the Jayson Blair scandal hit the headlines over 10 years ago, the New York Times described the relationship between the journalist and editor as one built on trust, liking it to that of a bank and a teller.
To a degree, they had a point. The relationship between an editor and a journalist isn’t like that of a teacher and a student or an academic publication to a researcher. Journalists do a lot of work on their own and editors have to be able to trust their reporters.
Reporters, generally, are used to a large amount of autonomy, especially after a few years in the field, and adding plagiarism checks into the editorial process could seem, to many, to be an affront to that autonomy and trust.
In short, the relationship between editors and journalists, often times, makes such checking difficult.
3. The Changing Nature of Journalism Employment
Of course, the second item only applies to those who are still employed under the traditional structure of journalism. More and more people who work as reporters don’t work under a newspaper at all and, instead, are working as freelancers.
This was punctuated in May of last year when the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff, switching to a freelancer-only model for its images.
The freelancer model makes anti-plagiarism efforts more difficult. Editors don’t build up relationships with journalists that can help them detect problems and the agreements publishers sign with freelancers puts the onus to stop plagiarism, at least legally, on the reporter.
Jonah Lehrer, after all, was a freelancer for most of his plagiarism/fabrication career and that is part of why he was able to fly under the radar for so long.
4. Ethical Gray Areas
While plagiarism can be a gray enough issue in any field, in journalism it can be especially tough.
For example, the Toronto Star recently was recently forced to post a correction on a plagiarism issue that involved an intern copying large chunks of text from earlier reporting by the same paper. But while this case was exceptional due to the amount of text reused and the nature of the text, which was more creative and less fact oriented, newspaper routinely recycle content both to save time and avoid legal issues, in particular on subjects that could be seen as libelous.
There are also wire services that newspapers and magazines routinely pull content from, with mixed levels of attribution, and press releases where the reuse of content is often encouraged by those who submit them and tolerated by editors.
Dealing with plagiarism seriously means also addressing a lot of difficult and gray area practices that has been going on in newsrooms for decades. Few, if any, publishers are eager to tackle those head on.
5. “Not Our Problem” Mentality
If you talk to editors and publishers of major newspapers, there’s a belief that they have the issue of plagiarism under control already and that it’s not a problem with their publication.
But that’s the problem with plagiarism, much like a fire isn’t a problem until a fire breaks out, plagiarism isn’t a problem until it’s been uncovered. However, where newspapers sprinkle fire extinguishers all over their buildings, they don’t take effective anti-plagiarism steps until after it’s too late.
Plagiarism is rarely seen as a serious problem at a paper and, even if it is, it isn’t seen as an immediate threat.
Given items 1 and 4, it’s tough to encourage publishers to tackle plagiarism, especially when they don’t see it as a challenge that’s an active threat to their business.
The Internet is clearly a major challenge for traditional journalism institutions. Increased competition, collapsed monopolies, diversification of media, shrinking audiences and, yes, copyright infringement, have all contributed to a very tough climate.
However, the greatest advantage that the “old guard” has is their reputation. Names like The New York Times, The Associated Press and so forth represent trust and reliability. However, ethical issues, including plagiarism, undermine that trustworthiness and offers a path for upstarts, including Internet-based ones, to build their reputation and grow their audience.
If newspapers, magazines and other members of journalisms old guard want to be relevant in the digital age, they have to be the reliable establishments they put themselves out to be, not companies that are simply doing anything they can to survive and remain relevant.
On that front, plagiarism is just one issue they have to tackle, but it’s a very important one that is not going away any time soon.