I have been meaning to post more of my old workshop handouts from No Train, No Gain to this blog. Unfortunately, I was prompted to post this one and another, about attribution, by a plagiarism incident at the Middletown Press. I encourage all of my Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group colleagues to read this. Attribution is one of journalism’s most serious issues. Plagiarism is inexcusable.
Scandals in newsrooms large and small have forced news organizations to apply the same skepticism to some staff members that they do to the institutions they cover. Journalists and newsrooms can no longer presume that every journalist understands that you don’t steal and you don’t make things up. A 2005 study by the Center for Academic Integrity found that 70 percent of college students admitted to cheating and 77 percent did not consider “cut and paste” plagiarism from the Internet a serious issue. Newspapers have to recognize that some of these students find jobs in newsrooms and need to learn standards of the field that should (but can’t) go without saying.
Your story must be true
Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative journalist Tom French sums up the journalist’s responsibility well: We must not make up so much as a single blade of grass. Journalists must be able to vouch for the facts in their stories. The best way to know something is true is to be there yourself and report what you saw with your own eyes. Sometimes that is not possible. When you report about events you did not witness, you gather information from eyewitnesses, official records, videotapes, etc. These sources can be flawed. They provide information from a single perspective. Your responsibility is twofold: Find the truth as completely as you can with the time and resources available and be honest with readers about how you know what you report.
Under no circumstances should a journalist fill in even the slightest gap in a story, even with a logical presumption. Fabrication is fabrication. It is and should be a firing offense. Fabrication does not come in degrees any more than virginity or death come in degrees. Make up a tiny fact that probably is close to the truth to fill a small gap in a story and you’ve taken the first step on a path that will lead to bigger lies and eventual discovery and disgrace.
Sometimes deadlines require writing about events that are unfolding as the reporter is writing. Readers, at least of the print edition, will know outcomes that reporters cannot know. That creates the unfortunate situation of publishing information that is out of date. Awkward though that is, never presume that an event came off as planned. Hedge your story with words such as “planned” or “scheduled” and you can avoid a scandal such as the one that embarrassed Mitch Albom and the Detroit Free Press when he wrote about two former Michigan State basketball players attending a Final Four game when all he knew was that they planned to attend (plans change, and theirs did). Albom’s presumption that the players would attend the game as they told him they would was reasonable. His readers would read the column after the game was over. Albom’s desire to tell the story in the past tense was understandable. But the truth can’t come in second behind reasonable presumptions or understandable desires. If you don’t know for a fact that something is true, hedge it or attribute it. Albom dismissed his journalism as “sloppy.” It was worse than that. It was fabrication. Be sure that what you write is true.
Your story must be yours
Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism. Given the scandals in journalism over the past decade, the typical excuse blaming plagiarism on sloppiness simply doesn’t wash. Plagiarism can ruin a career. Take care to label sources clearly in your notes. If you ever copy a passage electronically directly from an Internet source, another newspaper or an electronic document for use in a story or an electronic notes file, type quotation marks and the source name before you paste the passage into your story. Paste the passage inside the quotation marks so that no faulty memory or confusion later results in presenting it as your own. You may end up cutting the passage down or paraphrasing it, but you will have the attribution right there and you will know whether you are using someone else’s words. When you are quoting, cutting and pasting is a good practice that helps ensure that you quote accurately, without dropping or misspelling a word. Cutting and pasting can help make sure you don’t transpose figures in an important statistic. But the quotation marks and attribution are essential: the difference between sound research and a grave ethical offense that could ruin a career.
If you use quotes from other news outlets, attribute the quote both to the speaker and the news outlet: “told the New York Times.” If you use material from a wire service your paper subscribes to, you’re entitled to use it, but you still need to credit the service, either with a “the Associated Press reported” in the story or with a tagline at the end. If you use an entire passage, you need to credit the wire service with a tagline at the end or top of the story.
Perhaps you got away with plagiarism or fabrication in college. Perhaps you got caught plagiarizing for a term paper and the university’s punishment wasn’t too bad. If that’s the case, you need to change your thinking if you want to succeed in the news business. Newspapers can use plagiarism-detection software to screen reporters’ stories before they run. The Internet gives readers and interest groups powerful tools that will help them detect or even accidentally stumble across your cheating. A reader who has set up a Google news alert in an area that interests her could receive e-mail messages calling attention to your story and the story you stole from. If that reader e-mails those stories to your editor, your career will be over before the day ends and you’ll be an item in Romenesko or Regret the Error. Fabrication isn’t much tougher to detect. Editors can randomly run names in stories through public databases. If some of your names aren’t showing up, they will take a closer look and you will be caught.
Narration demands attribution
In our quest to engage readers, newspapers are using more narrative writing – storytelling that tries to put the reader at the scene. The most effective way to gather information for narrative stories is to witness events first-hand. When you need to reconstruct, be sure you attribute. Discuss with your editors whether you need to attribute in the text or whether you can let the story flow without attribution and provide detailed attribution in a box that would run with the story. Engaging readers is important, but it can’t take a back seat to credibility. However engaging a story is, if it comes from the memories of our sources, it carries their biases and the flaws of faulty memories and it needs attribution. Where possible, use 911 tapes, police radio tapes, court transcripts, home videos, game videos or security videos to help reconstruct dialogue and scenes accurately. Even then, attribute to those sources because even recording devices don’t capture everything.
Scrutiny protects honest reporters
Reporters who plagiarize and fabricate harm the credibility of honest reporters and of their whole paper and industry. If an editor demands more documentation of your sources or runs random plagiarism checks on your stories, that may feel like a breach of the trust that is important in any editor-reporter relationship. But just as airport security checks are an acceptable intrusion to protect the air travel system, some newsrooms will decide that stronger documentation and random checks are necessary to protect the integrity of the newspaper. Some newsrooms, either after being burned by fraudulent reporters or to prevent such an experience, have started checking stories randomly against databases and requiring information such as phone numbers or addresses on sources. While the questions may feel insulting, this scrutiny protects honest reporters.
I originally developed this handout for the American Press Institute, when I was leading a series of ethics seminars under a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The handout originally appeared in 2006 on No Train, No Gain (when the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley scandals were fresh in journalists’ consciousness). I have updated it and added links. I cited this piece in a blog post last year on plagiarism.