When is Plagiarism Newsworthy?

In Japan, a 15-year-old by the name of Hisahito Shinnō, submitted an essay to a contest put on by the city of Kitakyushu. In that essay, he reflected on a trip to the Ogasawara islands that he took with his mother during his fifth year of elementary school. 

Hisahito’s essay did very well, coming in second out of some 97 submissions. However, after the results were announced and the essay published, The Asahi Shimbun, a local magazine, discovered that elements of it has had been plagiarized from a various sources

Representatives from Hisahito’s family have acknowledged the plagiarism and said that they will review the work, revise the paper’s bibliography and notify the city of the issue. However, the contest’s organizers have said that they are not planning on withdrawing the award.

If all this sounds peculiar, it is. Normally, a high school student plagiarizing a second-place essay in a minor contest is not even worthy of local news. However, this story has received not just heavy attention in Japan, but internationally.

The reason is due to the detail I omitted. Hisahito Shinnō is better known as Prince Hisahito. He is the crown prince of Japan and is currently second in line for the throne.

Because of that single fact, this story of a high school student making a serious but not newsworthy misstep becomes an international headline. But is that fair? Why doesn’t Prince Hisahito get the same opportunities to make mistakes as other 15-year-olds? 

The answer is simple: It’s because the things that make plagiarism newsworthy rarely have anything to do with the plagiarism itself.

Defining Newsworthy

The issue of defining what is or is not newsworthy is as old as the concept of  news itself. There is far too much happening in any given day for any one person to follow it all, so how does a person or an organization choose what to report on.

Generally, there are five things that supposedly make any story newsworthy. They are.

  1. Timing: News must be something that is new. 
  2. Significance: The number of people impacted by the story.
  3. Proximity: The closer a person is to a story makes it more newsworthy to them.
  4. Prominence: The more famous those involved in the story, the more newsworthy it becomes.
  5. Human Interest: Stories that appeal to emotion may be deemed newsworthy even if they otherwise wouldn’t.

With plagiarism, the plagiarism itself is often not new at all. For example, with many politicians, the plagiarism happened decades in the past. In some cases, like President Joe Biden’s collegiate plagiarism, it was even discovered and reprimanded decades in the past.

Further, a lot of plagiarism doesn’t have any huge significance to the public. Outside plagiarized published works where the public was deceived, the number of parties deceived or legitimately aggrieved is typically very small. However, even if the public was impacted, that impact is usually insignificant and can easily go unnoticed.

Since proximity is depends on the audience, this primarily leaves prominence and human interest as the driving factors for making plagiarism stories newsworthy.

In the case of Prince Hisahito, it is clearly his prominence that makes the story remotely newsworthy. If he had been any other 15-year-old, it likely wouldn’t have even warranted a blurb in a local paper. 

We see this a great deal with politicians, too. Very minor plagiarism allegations become headline-dominating stories. The divisive nature of politics make these stories especially popular with those politically opposed to them, often driving them to relevance for a long, long time. 

The simple truth is that plagiarism newsworthiness isn’t determined by the actual plagiarism. It’s determined by the people involved and how we, collectively, feel about them. 

This means that a minor plagiarism by a person who is well-known and has a strong connection with the public will make headlines, while some journalists are found to be career-long plagiarists, but their discovery barely warrants a mention.

This isn’t fair, but it’s hardly surprising, and the issue is not unique to plagiarism. We see this in countless other fields where the people, not the deed itself, is usually the story.

Bottom Line

To repeat, this is not a problem unique to plagiarism.  This is an issue with the news broadly in terms of how things are selected for coverage. 

However, with plagiarism, the issue is especially impactful. In the absence of a legal framework to tackle plagiarism (other than its overlap with copyright), much of plagiarism enforcement is through social enforcement.

But if people aren’t aware of a plagiarism, that enforcement can’t happen. While a plagiarist may be caught and reprimanded at the moment, that often ends up just being a temporary setback. This can be problematic when a more significant response is warranted.

This has the impact of making plagiarism enforcement incredibly uneven. By any reasonable standard, Prince Hisahito’s story is unimportant. Yes, the misdeed was serious, but it isn’t in any way distinct from what countless other 15-year-olds have done, been reprimanded for and moved on from. 

Rightly or wrongly, his story becomes one of international import simply because of who his family is. 
However, that is not uncommon. The plagiarists that are chosen to become news stories and have their names tied to the issue for all time are not chosen because of the severity of their alleged crimes.

Rather, they are chosen for who they are and the pre-existing importance they have with the public. 

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