Journalism has no such sin as low-level plagiarism.
The very act of rewriting stolen material makes a theft more sinister and deliberate than the stupid plagiarists who steal whole paragraphs, passages or stories verbatim.
Plagiarism accusations against Fareed Zakaria continue, and Poynter’s Kelly McBride evaluated them for Politico and concluded: “It’s plagiarism. Low-level. But plagiarism.”
Kelly is a longtime friend and one of the strongest and wisest voices on journalism ethics. Several years ago we collaborated on a series of ethics seminars and my respect for her grew each time we worked together. I have praised and promoted the ethics book she edited with Tom Rosenstiel, The New Ethics of Journalism. And I’ll invite and publish or link to any response she has to this post.
But she’s wrong to use the phrase “low-level” in describing dozens of instances of obviously deliberate theft of other people’s work. That’s not all she said. She also said, “It seems obvious that Fareed was overly reliant on his source material.” I agree with that, but it’s a huge understatement. He was overly reliant on his source material, without attribution.
Here’s how we defined plagiarism in Telling the Truth and Nothing But, a book on which I collaborated with journalists from more than 30 journalism organizations, media companies and universities:
Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as your own. Whether it is deliberate or a result of carelessness, such appropriation should be considered unacceptable because it hides the sources of information from the audience. Every act of plagiarism betrays the public’s trust, violates the creator of the original material and diminishes the offender, the craft and our industry.
The best way to avoid plagiarism is to attribute information, a practice available in any medium. Credit should be given for information that is not common knowledge: facts, theories, opinions, statistics, photos, videos, graphics, drawings, quotations or original wordings first used by something else.
I didn’t write that section, but I applaud the journalists who did and embrace it as a definition and an explanation why it is a high-level violation of journalism ethics. Nothing Zakaria did lessens the gravity of his offense one iota.
Reading through that explanation of plagiarism again, Zakaria did everything you’re not supposed to do and nothing that you are supposed to do: He presented others’ work as his own; it was most certainly deliberate, though he was also careless; he hid the sources of his information from his audience; he betrayed the public’s trust; he violated the creators of original material; he diminished himself, the craft of journalism and the news organizations that amazingly have stood behind him; he didn’t attribute and he failed to credit nearly everything on the list of stuff you should credit. What is low-level about any of that?
I might buy “low-level” plagiarism as a description of the repetition of a particular phrase that’s not unique to you, though I think using a serious term such as plagiarism in those cases is wrong. You read or hear something clever and deposit it somewhere in your memory bank and it comes out sometime in your writing as appearing to be original to you. I have written before that I did something like that with the phrase “attribution is the difference between plagiarism and research.” When it flowed from my mind and fingers in writing a first draft, I liked it, thought it was new and clever and kept on writing. As I was editing, it sounded familiar and I wondered if I was stealing someone else’s clever line (something you especially don’t want to do when writing about plagiarism). So I Googled it and learned that I had used the line before. I couldn’t find another use of the line, which still doesn’t mean it was original to me. Perhaps I read it somewhere in print, before Google could index it. Perhaps I heard it. But it’s eight words whose source is unclear. That’s not even low-level plagiarism. It’s inspiration. It’s no worse than using a cliché, which isn’t good, original journalism but it’s not unethical.
If a journalist once or twice uses a phrase that first appeared elsewhere, I’ll shrug that off as inspiration or the fallibility of memory. We should reserve the word plagiarism for serious offenses and not soften it by assigning degrees.
But Our Bad Media, in three posts last month and this, has documented 45 examples of theft by Zakaria, none of them using attribution to the similar sources and many of them using verbatim passages from the original sources. The plagiarism they document started with Zakaria’s first piece for The New Republic (Our Bad Media’s mark-up of that example is below) and continued after Our Bad Media first accused him of multiple acts of plagiarism last month.
Politico’s Dylan Byers asked Kelly and Robert Drechsel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to examine the accusations by Our Bad Media. I liked Drechsel’s conclusion better than Kelly’s: “Most of the examples provided and analyzed by the bloggers seem to fall into the realm of what is now being called ‘patch writing’ — using material generated by someone else, without attribution, but rewritten slightly so one cannot call it verbatim copying. It falls within what I would consider plagiarism. Other examples cited by the bloggers do appear to be verbatim.”
I like that Drechsel didn’t use any modifier in identifying the rewriting as plagiarism. But I don’t like the term “patch writing,” partly because you need to explain it, as he did in his email to Byers, but also because it sounds harmless, like some sort of benign blend of journalism and quilting. Here’s what I call it: sneaky plagiarism.
Stealing someone else’s words verbatim is stupid plagiarism. Maybe the person who does that really doesn’t know you’re not supposed to do it. In 2005, when a columnist published multiple Leonard Pitts columns word for word, I actually wondered whether he didn’t know that was wrong, didn’t know how famous Pitts was, didn’t understand how easily Google would turn up his columns alongside the originals in search results was or maybe just was tired of journalism and wanted to get fired. If it was one of the first three, that journalist was as stupid as he was dishonest, maybe more so.
But Zakaria was sneaky in his plagiarism. He rewrote his passages, changing a few words, fiddling with the order of facts and points but clearly — again and again — stealing the research and the conclusions and some of the words of other sources, but making it look a bit different. That works if you’re attributing and putting quotes around the words that come from the other source. But without attribution, it’s plagiarism.
For 20 or more of the examples cited by Our Bad Media, you could look at them in isolation and maybe argue that Zakaria and the original source had simply found the same numbers that were widely available, the explanation Zakaria gave in an Aug. 19 email to Byers. But Zakaria never cited the source of the numbers and always used the numbers in the same way as the ripped-off source to make the same points. And did it again and again and again. I can buy one coincidence, maybe two. Not 45. Rewriting stolen material, without attribution, doesn’t mean you didn’t steal it or that it was a low-level offense. It means you tried to hide the theft.
Again and again, Our Bad Media has pointed out little details that confirm that this was certain and deliberate theft, not coincidence. The second example cited in the latest post shows a 2011 Economist story and a 2012 Zakaria segment on his CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS that both make the point that Mexico’s foreign trade is “more than Argentina and Brazil combined.” I’m not likely to think the choice of those two countries would be coincidental, but that one phrase hardly constitutes plagiarism. Maybe by itself you could believe that’s a comparison he heard a year ago and forgot that it wasn’t original and can’t remember the source. But the Economist story added: “Last year it did $400 billion in business with the United States.” Zakaria said, “Last year, Mexico did $400 billion in business with the United States.” For the Economist story, “last year” was 2010, when the United States and Mexico has $394 million in trade, according to the government figures Our Bad Media linked to. Who wouldn’t round off that number to $400 million? By the time Zakaria did his report, “last year” was 2011 and his number was out of date. U.S. trade with Mexico that year was $461 billion, a number you’d round up to $500 billion or might not round up at all. If you were doing original work.
I will reiterate but not elaborate again on two points I’ve made before:
- These instances of plagiarism are outrageous and would have been taken more seriously more quickly if the accusers were not anonymous. The authors of Our Bad Media are known only as Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort. But if you look past the anonymity, the substance of their research is devastating, as Drechsel noted. (
I’ve asked for an interview, but have not received a response.) Update: @blippoblappo responded by Twitter direct message to my requests for an interview. Our Bad Media is working on another post and “Blupman” said they would address my questions in it. I DM’d some questions. I’l certainly note when they respond.
- This is Exhibit A for my argument that linking is a matter of journalism ethics. We should always link in digital formats to our digital sources of information. Many of Zakaria’s offending passages appeared online at CNN or the Washington Post. If those editors expected links in journalists’ work, Zakaria’s failure to link to original sources (or the striking similarity of his work to those sources) would have alerted editors to his practices much earlier.
Because most of his plagiarism involved rewriting that muddled the clarity of the crime, I want to conclude by returning to the first example Our Bad Media cited in their Aug. 19 post, David Leonhardt in the New York Times wrote:
Of the 500 big companies in the well-known Standard & Poor’s stock index, 115 paid a total corporate tax rate — both federal and otherwise — of less than 20 percent over the last five years, according to an analysis of company reports done for the New York Times by Capital IQ, a research firm. Thirty-nine of those companies paid a rate less than 10 percent.
Here’s what Zakaria did for Time magazine with those same facts:
And yet, of the 500 big companies in the Standard & Poor’s stock index, 115 paid a total corporate tax rate — both federal and otherwise — of less than 20% over the past five years. Thirty-nine of those companies paid a rate of less than 10%.
After “and yet,” the next 34 words of Zakaria’s passage are identical to the Times passage, except that he cut the descriptor “well-known.” And he used a percentage sign instead of spelling out “percent.” Then, notably, he differs from the Times by cutting out the source of the analysis. Zakaria didn’t cite the Times, Leonhardt or Capital IQ. He presented these facts as his own analysis or common knowledge, and didn’t attribute. Then the final 11 words are again a ripoff from the Times, directly, word for word, except for adding the word “of.”
When two paragraphs are nearly identical, that’s high-level plagiarism. The 40-plus other accounts of sneaky plagiarism don’t lighten the offense. They compound it.