He discussed the case with his class and sent me an email with an interesting analysis by his students about different types of plagiarism. I’ll share his summary of the analysis, then comment on it.
We had a fascinating discussion about Zakaria, comparing the latest side-by-sides and discussing the Post’s wishy-washy questions. I came down pretty hard on Zakaria (and predicted a denouement by the end of the semester). I even showed a clip of him smugly talking to a British TV person about the Indian election. We did something interesting that you may or may want to follow up. Because some of the class was a little nicer than I was, we broke plagiarism down into five blocks.
- Words — The sports folks, tellingly, argued that there might be just one way to describe a key play. I said I found that hard to believe but might be able to accept the same words from two reporters if writer #2 had not first read writer #1.
- Facts — I said that I found stealing facts abominable because someone else has done the work and the reader has no idea where they came from. On the Web, in particular, it seems lazy because attribution is so easy. I did concede that it might be OK to go to the original source and “re-find” the facts if the original source is given.
- Ideas — I said that I found it most difficult to “copyright” ideas.
- Quotes — I agreed that, in this age of PR folks putting out statements for their clients or parading the same client at the same moment before a variety of reporters, it might be OK to see the same quotes in multiple stories. In fact, it would be weird not to see them the same if the source were the same.
- The medium — There might be some excuse if Zakaria loosely uses someone else’s information when he’s a talking head vs. when he is writing for The Times.
That’s a pretty good analysis. Some of my thoughts on each of the blocks:
I think for short passages of words, the most common originality sins in journalism are clichés and jargon, rather than plagiarism. Both may apply to the sports examples Jerry cited of multiple writers using the same description of a particular type of play. For instance, “pick-six” isn’t at all an original term for an interception returned for a touchdown (or “to the house,” if we’re doubling down on clichés). But the sports writer or broadcaster who uses it isn’t committing plagiarism because you can’t identify a single person who originated that phrase. And if you could, that’s probably not the person the journalist stole it from anyway, because it’s so widely used.
In another respect, I think short passages can be inadvertently repeated from an original source just because of how memory works. You might read a nicely turned phrase in someone else’s work and admire it. And it gets stored somewhere in your memory. If that phrase comes out in your own writing (without realizing that you had read or heard it before), that’s an innocent form of inspiration. If you’re conscious of it, you should note the source, but it’s pointless to blame someone who isn’t the first to use a phrase. Either memory or coincidence could explain.
But I wouldn’t go much over half a dozen words with that excuse. The longer a phrase is, the more it takes a good memory, not a faulty one, to pull it out out. And a good memory calls up the source as well as the words. Or at least remembers that it’s not original, so you can look up the source. And, of course, the longer a similar passage is, the more likely we’re not talking about memory, but about cutting and pasting. And if you cut and paste without attributing, that’s plagiarism. Sloppiness, as I’ve said before, is not an excuse, but a guilty plea.
And it doesn’t matter whether you steal the words from an unwilling journalist or from a press release, whose author wants you to take the work verbatim. You attribute not as a courtesy to the other author, but because you owe your readers honesty about where you’re getting your information. They need to know whether you went out and gathered the information yourself or simply regurgitated a press release.
Words are often the easiest types of plagiarism to detect and prove. You Google a few keywords and can see that long passages are identical or nearly so. Guilty.
Facts are stupid things, as Ronald Reagan once said (he corrected himself right away; it’s one of the few bogus bad raps the Gipper gets). Here is my view on using facts that have appeared elsewhere: If another media outlet was your original source of information, you should credit it, even if it’s your competition and even if you confirmed all the facts yourself. You should credit not out of courtesy or professional respect for the other news source, but those are good reasons. You should credit the other outlet (and link to it in digital content) out of respect for the reader/viewer, who may be interested in learning more about this topic.
If you really re-reported all the facts and don’t credit the original source, I guess it’s not plagiarism, but it’s also not your best use of time.
Of course, sometimes reporters covering the same beats or stories independently come up with the same facts. Nothing wrong with that.
And, as Jerry said, if you just steal the facts from other media, that’s plagiarism and it’s unforgivable.
The group that was writing Telling the Truth and Nothing But discussed whether theft of ideas was plagiarism. We decided it wasn’t but stated in the book that you should credit ideas that clearly influence your work:
Journalists should attribute the original, distinctive or seminal ideas of others when the ideas form a substantial basis for their own work.
Some ideas lead directly to other stories: You read a good story from another community and decide if the same thing is happening here and produce a story that’s entirely original in its content, but inspired by someone else. That story might not even have a place to smoothly attribute the idea. But you can include a “related link” to the original story. Perhaps you credit with a “hat tip” in social media or send the reporter an email, thanking her for the inspiration.
Other inspiration is more indirect. You see a story in other media and admire the story. You may think you should do something like that someday, but you don’t start working on your version yet. And when you do start your version, you may or may not remember the source(s) of your inspiration. Or maybe you don’t plan to do your version, but later events on your beat prompt you to do a similar story. You take the same approach, but you may not even remember where you got the idea. You may genuinely think it was your own.
If you didn’t hear the quote yourself in your news gathering, you should attribute the source: another media outlet, an official transcript or recording of the event, etc. Stealing of quotes without attribution is plagiarism.
If you take a quote from a press release, cite the press release (since there’s a good possibility that a public relations specialist wrote it rather than the speaker actually saying it). If you take a quote from another media outlet, even the competition, cite the outlet. Even if you watched someone else’s interview on TV, cite the interview.
That doesn’t mean that every identical quote was stolen. Sometimes a PR specialist or source might speak to multiple reporters at a press conference or an informal huddle at or after a news event. Or sometimes sources dealing with multiple reporters start repeating themselves. Back in 1983 and ’84, several news outlets interviewed me about my Iowa Caucus Game. Their questions were pretty similar and my answers became pretty similar. I remember two TV networks using the same quote, but I know they each did separate interviews. I was just giving the same spiel.
All media should cite their sources. Obviously, you can and should attribute differently depending on the medium. For instance, you should always link to digital sources in digital media, but you can’t link in broadcast or print. But you can and should attribute.
Thanks to Jerry for sharing his class’s thoughts about plagiarism.