Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Plagiarize, Plagiarize, Plagiarize

I find this an interesting analysis, and sadly, I think he’s right: There probably is plagiarism is just about every newsroom in America. I would venture to go even farther and say there is widespread fabrication as well. It’s not the big stuff – making up stories out of whole cloth and so forth. That would get you caught in a hurry. Or at least fairly quickly (as Jayson Blair found out). It’s more likely the little stuff – quotes that don’t quite add up, sources that don’t quite exist, facts that may or may not be quite so factual.

I doubt there is a journalist out there who hasn’t sat staring hopelessly at the screen, trying to compose some two bit story about the annual “Apple Blossom Parade” or some such Metro Desk horror and thought to himself “would anyone really notice if I just made up some happy quote? (“I love this parade, I come every year – I’ve been doing it since I was a kid,” said Bill Smith, 37, a janitor who brought his two kids two hours early to get a good seat.)

And in answer to the inevitable question: Yes, I have thought exactly this. And no, I have never done it. Though I really, really wanted to. Covering an Apple Blossom Parade or any other similar happy event is really, truly the lowest pit of journalistic hell. Believe me.

Part of the problem with journalistic plagiarism, as opposed to, say, academic plagiarism, is that the line is a little grey. I know that sounds odd, but it makes sense once you understand how a story gets created. The reporter’s main work goes into the top part of the story – what happened yesterday, what people are saying about it and so forth. But every story has to have a backbone of history and context. Somewhere high up in the story will be what’s called the “nutgraf,” which explains why the story is important (“This is the first time a state has passed such a law,” “He is the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court” that kind of thing). Then lower down, accounting for perhaps as much as half the story, will be this history – a detailed account of how we got here.

On a complex on-going story, a reporter or editor might look back at past stories for that background. Sometimes, an older story may have the perfect, elegant nutgraf, or a really concise summary of the events. And so you pick those up and put them in your story. That would not pass muster in an academic context, but in journalism that’s generally considered a perfectly acceptable thing to do, provided the old story is from your newspaper (better yet, if you are the reporter who wrote the old story). It’s just a question of time and efficiency – you don’t have the time or space to come up with a new and elegant way to redescribe the background of the story every day.

But this is a bit of a slippery slope. Some people forget that it isn’t acceptable to lift this stuff from other publications. And there is widespread disagreement about whether it is acceptable to lift this sort of material from wire services without credit (I think you can use it, but you should certainly credit the wire service somewhere, if only with a “The Associated Press contributed to this report” kind of thing).

All this is not to excuse journalistic plagiarism – it’s just to show that it is a much fuzzier line than someone outside the business might think.

There is an old joke in journalism, by the way, words to live by as you write a story: Make it sing, make it dance, make it up.



7 comments:

Cassie said...

Have you ever heard of Barry Cornwall (19th cent. playwright)? He said "Most writers steal a good thing when they can."

How do you feel about that?

Sean Scully said...

Hadn't heard that, though I know the old "Talent borrows, genius steals" line. Cornwall is clearly being facetious, but it does express an underlying truth - it's hard to be wholly original in any creative endeavor and it's hard to avoid being influenced by things you have read, heard and seen.

Cassie said...

I can't help but wonder if by "when they can" he meant "when they can get away with it" or "when they can do so without actually crossing the line into plagiarism".

Sean Scully said...

Yes, I believe you're onto something.

Cassie said...

I read a book once which had stolen, line for line, dialog from a C.S. Lewis book (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Just used it in their own context without attributing it to Lewis or anything. Made me furious. That to my mind is inexcusable. I think Cornwall was talking more about expounding on other people's ideas or something -- but not lifting whole pieces from someone else's book and printing it as your own.

Cassie said...

I read a book once which had stolen, line for line, dialog from a C.S. Lewis book (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Just used it in their own context without attributing it to Lewis or anything. Made me furious. That to my mind is inexcusable. I think Cornwall was talking more about expounding on other people's ideas or something -- but not lifting whole pieces from someone else's book and printing it as your own.

Sean Scully said...

Yes, I think you are right. The line between plaigiarism and inspiration may be grey, but it is not indistinguishable.