When it comes to plagiarism, there are few topics as controversial as press releases.
The reason is simple. Press releases are put out into the world for the purpose of being copied. While, in a perfectly ethical world, that copying means quoting/citing, press agents are often perfectly happy to have their crafted language become part of the story without attribution.
To that end, many would be journalists and editors have looked the other way and used the language verbatim or near-verbatim in their articles without citation. Press release plagiarism, for example, was a key part of the downfall of Jonah Lehrer but other publications have openly stated they have no issue with their reporters copying and pasting from press releases.
Despite this, in journalism, press release plagiarism is still considered plagiarism by most reporters and editors. Part of the journalists’ job is to report on a story and that means gathering/checking facts and writing an unbiased piece, not simply repeating what one participant in the story has to say verbatim.
While press release plagiarism may not have a direct victim, the audience is still misled and journalism was not performed. After all, it’s still a case of a reporter taking credit for writing that is not theirs, plain and simple.
But what happens when a press release is plagiarized in another press release? What happens when the plagiarist isn’t a journalist feigning original reporting but another party trying to push their own press release?
That’s a strange question but it’s the exact one that confronts us with the latest plagiarism scandal from the Trump Administration as they are accused of copying and pasting a paragraph from an earlier statement by ExxonMobil.
The Story So Far
The story so far is fairly straightforward. On March 6th Washington Post reporter Chistopher Ingraham posted on Twitter that he had noticed that a press release from the White House put out that day had copied an entire paragraph verbatim from an ExxonMobil press release also from the same day.
White House press release (left) contains full paragraph copied verbatim from Exxon press release (right). pic.twitter.com/NlhoUvdqvd
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) March 6, 2017
A quick examination shows that the two paragraphs are identical outside of the White House writing out United States, adding a space to “Exxon Mobil” and adding the word “expansion”. Other than that, the two paragraphs are identical.
The text, which was meant to highlight an investment and expansion by ExxonMobil, was clearly copied and pasted without attribution to the original source.
While it’s understandable that the Trump administration would want to tout this new expansion and the jobs it brings, the copying of the language raises unintended questions about the closeness of the administration to the oil and gas industries.
After all, by reusing part of the text of ExxonMobil’s press release, the Trump administration is essentially using the White House Press Office to send out portions of ExxonMobil’s press release.
For many, that is both lazy, dishonest and indicative of an uncomfortably close relationship between the administration and the company.
Why Press Release Plagiarism Matters
When a journalist commits press release plagiarism, that’s important because we expect journalists to both draft their own articles and to be unbiased arbiters of truth, not mouthpieces for one of the participants of a story.
Many of those same issues apply here.
First, the issue represents a degree of sloppiness that has become indicative of this administration on plagiarism matters. If we look at this administration from the campaign through today, this is actually the eighth plagiarism headline that has surrounded the administration.
That’s eight different plagiarism-related stories in just under one year (though one is a non-starter, leaving us with 7 real stories of various importance).
Historically, Presidential administrations have gone to great lengths to avoid plagiarism scandals by carefully vetting and checking content that is put out to the public. The Trump administration is clearly taking a more informal approach and it clearly shows in the increase of plagiarism-related stories.
But this one is a particularly unforced error. While one can argue that finding a few passages in a large work is very difficult under the best of circumstances, such as with the Betsy Devos case, a paragraph in the middle of a press release is much easier to spot and fix before release.
But while the sloppiness is a cause for concern in this case, there’s also the element of who was plagiarized.
The White House Press Office was seeking to praise ExxonMobil for its investment and, while doing so, copied from ExxonMobil’s own press release seeking coverage for their efforts.
Regardless of how you feel about the story, the White House Press Office, an office that is supposed to represent a branch of our government to the media, used its position to distribute part of a press release from a private corporation.
To many, that represents an uncomfortably close relationship and raises serious questions that go well beyond that of plagiarism.
When it comes to plagiarism, we too often get focused on the narrative of plagiarist and victim.
But plagiarism isn’t just about a thief and their mark, its also about an audience being misled, authors not performing their due diligence and about exposing connections and biases that were not properly disclosed.
This is why press release plagiarism is a serious offense for journalists and why it’s also worrisome when the White House Press Office commits it.
While I doubt ExxonMobil is unlikely to protest the use of its writing, it is still an issue of serious concern, especially when put in the context of all the other plagiarism stories to have come from this administration.