Plagiarism: A Renaissance for Attribution

he Young St. John the Baptist
Piero di Cosimo, “Young St. John the Baptist” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Renaissance artists might have struggled with the idea of plagiarism. Florentine salons respected tradition and uniformity, and apprentices in Piero di Cosimo’s studio learned by imitating the master. National Gallery of Art curator Gretchen Hirschauer told New York Times critic Carol Vogel that Piero’s work entered American collections partly by accident. It was attributed to other artists.

But the concept of plagiarism has evolved. When Vogel previewed Hirschauer’s retrospective of Piero’s work, a few readers were quick to question her report. It started with a list of Piero’s peculiarities, citing contemporary Giorgio Vasari, who’s still studied in paperback. But the wording was close to an even more common source, Wikipedia. The print passage is shortened online, and ombudsman Margaret Sullivan suggests Times editors might take further steps if a pattern emerges.

The word plagiarism first appears during the Reformation. The Random House Dictionary defines it as “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.” Universities have moved beyond the Renaissance academy, with rules against copying and paraphrasing. The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code simply says, “Never plagiarize.

Yet the practice continues. Evidence of plagiarism in Sen. John Walsh’s Army War College research puts him under pressure to withdraw from the November election. Repeated instances on the website BuzzFeed got a producer fired last month. And delegates to SPJ’s 2014 convention will consider adding another ethics directive: “Always attribute.

Why this plague of plagiarism? In the modern age, it’s just so much easier to copy. It doesn’t take years of apprenticeship, just a few cut-and-paste keystrokes. Technology raises the risk of not only becoming a plagiarist, but also being uncovered as one: Sources found on the web can be compared in a web search too.

Dropping source material into a draft is dangerous, even if the intention is to recast. A disciplined writer might use control-p for accuracy, with proper names or direct quotes. But even that’s risky. A good place to start is with primary sources — recordings, transcripts, statements — then to refer to them sparingly.

Attribution’s more of a gray area in news media, if only because they use wire services so widely. Associated Press subscribers agree to pool their reports, generally without attribution once the original report’s in print.

The blogosphere has clouded the standards further. Websites flirt with plagiarism when they relay the essence of an exclusive elsewhere, in a way that robs the source of any chance to profit from its beat. The Chicago Tribune frequently gives reminders to its online news editors (I was one) on how to cite other publications: Name and link to the source, don’t quote directly, keep the report to a sentence or two, and confirm it as soon as possible.

Competition encourages journalists not only to confirm a story but to move it forward. Once their own report is in place, it also makes them stingy about giving credit to the newsroom that put it out first. But standards are evolving here too. Web timestamps make it more apparent who scored the beat, and that may be making everyone more generous at giving due credit.

If rules on fairplay are shifting, the Renaissance atelier may be where to look for direction. When they knew enough to transform their material, apprentices became journeymen and started their own studios. When journalists bring craft and intelligence to their work, they too became artists.

Chicago content strategy consultant Stephen Rynkiewicz is business editor for Rivet News Radio. He blogs at escapednotice.blogspot.com.

Submit your question to the Ethics Adviceline for Journalists.

Anon Again

 

By Casey Bukro

Anonymous sources — used by media and by government officials — came up again in a New York Daily News piece by James Warren.

Warren used a press briefing by Josh Earnest, the new White House press secretary, to illustrate how Earnest and a reporter dueled, trading accusations of withholding sources. Back and forth they went, parry and thrust.

Warren also comments on the value of White House news briefings, and whether they actually produce news.

“It has been a fairly informative ritual at times evolved (perhaps partly as a result of the cameras) into an hour or so of premeditated evasions by the spokesman; a bit too much prosecutorial posturing by some of the reporters; and, ultimately, rhetorical stand-offs in which there’s little advancement in public understanding of important matters.

Actually, Warren noted, if a White House reporter’s annual salary depended on legitimate stories produced by the briefings, he’d “be eligible for unemployment compensation.”

But the bulk of Warren’s story deals with the give-and-take between Earnest and a reporter, who was asking for more on-the-record sources from the White House. That would depend, said Earnest, on a case-by-case evaluation and ground rules “that will serve your interests and the White House interest the best.”

Warren called the “spitball fight” hypocritical.

“The Washington media, like media at other levels of journalism, is often involved in a mutual self-protection racket with the people we cover,” he wrote. “It can be at the White House, City Hall in Chicago or a county board in Texas. The dynamic is roughly similar. Too many reporters are manipulated with scarcely a qualm.”

About.Com Media describes the dangers of using anonymous news sources and offers five questions to ask yourself before trusting anonymous sources.

The site points out that inexperienced reporters might believe that using anonymous sources “make news stories sound more important,” but the practice presents “many ethical and legal dangers.”

Taking a Devil’s Advocate approach, New York News & Politics explored whether the Watergate investigation leading to President Nixon’s resignation could have been possible without  W. Mark Felt, later identified as the “Deep Throat” confidential informant.

The story touches on the working habits of Seymour Hersh and Jayson Blair, with comments from Bob Woodward.

“Journalism exists to get us closer to all sorts of truth, and anonymous sources are essential to the endeavor,” concludes the author, Kurt Andersen. “Even now, they provide more social benefit than they (exact) in moral costs.”

 

 

Vanishing Facts, Finding Truth

 

By Casey Bukro

Looks like this new generation of online and social media writers don’t care much about fact-checking, favoring speed over accuracy.

Though that might be obvious from reading  the internet, a survey by the Dutch company ING seems to prove the point.

It found that only 20 percent of international journalists questioned bothered to check their facts before publishing.

Forty-five percent of them “publish as soon as possible and correct later,” according to the report.

This is further proof of online journalism’s faith in the self-correcting nature of the internet. Report it fast and report it first, they say. Corrections can come later.

This is a far cry from that old-school Chicago journalism motto: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. It was the ultimate in fact-checking, applied to anything and everything. The rule was to get it right the first time.

More in keeping with a different sort of saying: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Another ING survey finding: Sixty percent of the international journalists said they felt less constrained by journalism standards when reporting in social media. Though they expressed low regard for the accuracy of social media, 50 percent said much of their news tips and information come from social media.

They agree social media is an informational trash bin, but dipping into that bin is addictive.

Angela Wascheck in “10,000 words” described the ING survey.

The ING report comes on the heels of a Columbia Journalism Review story on the values of modern-day newsrooms, entitled “Who Cares If It’s True?”

“In the newsrooms of this moment, with growing agreement that audiences want information that is true, journalists are coming together around the same basic questions: When is information sufficiently baked to be served up as accurate? Who decides? Should there be rules, or just ideals? Is it enough merely to try to be right eventually?”

The author, Marc Fisher, traces the shoot-from-the-hip history of some digital newsrooms, their differences with old-school journalism, and the growing recognition of the value of accuracy and credibility — even in social media.

It began with the digital journalists’ belief that truth would emerge through open trial and error. Transparency was the answer. If you don’t know, just say so.

But that could be changing.

Fisher cites one high-flying digital operation that is “embracing the ultimate symbol of the overstuffed print newsrooms of the pre-digital past.” It is hiring copy editors.

In another, Fisher finds a plan “to marry print traditions of completeness, verification and authority with the digital imperatives for speed and connection with the audience’s interest.”

Battles between the two camps still exist, but Fisher quotes a source who says conflicts diminish “as digital people have moved into leadership roles, and as everyone learned that aggregation can only take you so far, and as people from both backgrounds learn that it’s better to be second than wrong.”

 

 

 

Anon

 

By Casey Bukro

 

Pssst! Hey buddy, over here. Got some really important news for you. Can’t tell you where I got it. But trust me.

That, in effect, is the con played often on the public by some of the nation’s leading newspapers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s called anonymity.

This con was neatly spelled out in a Reuters piece by Jack Shafer, who counted the number of times the Times offered corrections recently on stories based on anonymous sources, citing anonymous sources again to make the corrections.

That’s carrying the con a bit far.

Shafer traces the history of citing anonymous sources from a time when it was rare, to a time when it was rampant. It’s probably  fair to say that this journalistic disease is especially prevalent in Washington, involving government and political reporting.

Most reporters know that stories are only as good as the reliability of identified sources who are quoted.

“Anonymous sources reduce the pressure on official sources to take responsibility for their utterances,” writes Shafer. “And it promotes the gaming of news outlets, with anonymous sources gravitating to the most pliant reporters and editors.”

Weak or lazy scribes sometimes think they’re acting like “the big boys” by writing stories veiled in mystery, as though they know really important people who want to stay in the shadows. Sometimes these journalists know they are being used, but think that’s how the game is played. With more digging, they might find sources willing to be identified.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “the public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” There are times when anonymity is warranted, such as protecting someone’s life or welfare.

Scholars believe the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage was the “watershed moment for anonymous reporting,” touching off a wave of imitators who lusted for the fame of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Getting cozy with news sources is another way to play the game, as Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s “On the Media” program pointed out in his scathing commentary on the White House Correspondents Dinner in a piece entitled “When the Watchdogs Wear Tuxedos, Politicians Rest Easy.”

All of this leads to a point made by Thomas Baekdal, who investigated the meaning of quality journalism. He found that although some of the leading newspaper managers say they are doing a great job, they are losing readers.

It’s just possible that readers are disenchanted with journalism that depends on anonymous sources and making nice with news sources, like the White House correspondents dinner.  It’s journalism with a wink and a nod.

Readers know what’s going on there, and they’re turned off. They know they’re entitled to a better journalism, and better journalists.

 

Handling Rumors on Social Media

By David Craig

How should journalists deal with rumors on social media?

Answering this question in practice isn’t as simple as it might seem. A good discussion of the topic broke out Friday during the latest #EdShift Twitter chat on PBS MediaShift.

The biweekly chats draw in both journalists and journalism professors to talk about topics important to the future of journalism education. This one focused on ethical issues on social media. Excellent comments, including resources for good ethical practice, emerged on several topics. But the most intense debate centered on rumors.

Steve Fox, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, took this view:

Fox said the approach used by Andy Carvin, formerly of NPR and well-known for his engagement with Twitter sources during Arab Spring, can’t be generalized to other reporting. But Carvin, who joined in the discussion, said that if journalists are just passing along unverified rumors, that’s the wrong way to work. He posted links to several tweets he wrote after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, to show the approach he takes to verifying information:

With this approach, Carvin challenges assumptions and highlights the likelihood that early reports are wrong – whether they come from individuals or news media.

The research he’s been doing as a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University also provides a caution for journalists using law enforcement sources.

Where does all of this leave us on the question of how journalists should handle rumors on social media?

I share Fox’s caution on any communication by journalists about rumors. In ethical terms, minimizing harm – a mainstay of ethics including the Society of Professional Journalists code – calls for great care because of the potential of false information to do damage.

But in the social media sphere, where the public is immediately awash in good and bad information, journalists often best meet another duty – seeking truth – by aggressively questioning rumors openly in real time. (For another case study on this, see a 2011 blog post by Daniel Victor, now a social media editor at The New York Times, about two journalists on Twitter in the middle of a shooting scare in Philadelphia.)

In another tweet,  Carvin said that if a rumor spreads on social media, journalists’ duty is  “to acknowledge it, pick it apart, prove/debunk it.”

Well-said. That means being ethical on social media involves not just asking hard questions but asking them in the open.

 

 

 

The Times Telling Its Own Story

By Casey Bukro

The New York Times is a classic case of how poorly the media tell stories about themselves.

Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. fired Jill Abramson as executive editor, touching off a storm of speculation over who did what to whom and why, and motivations behind the story that was told or not told.

Days after the dismissal, Sulzberger issued a statement complaining that “a shallow and factually incorrect storyline has emerged.”

One version of that storyline held that Abramson was sacked because of her complaints that her $525,000 salary was less than her predecessor’s, a man, setting up the argument that a woman was paid less than a man for the same job.

Another thread was Abramson’s management style, described as polarizing, non collegial, mercurial and pushy, traits that might be tolerated in a man but not in a woman.

“I decided that Jill could no longer remain as executive editor for reasons having nothing to do with pay or gender,” said Sulzberger’s statement, as he hoped to clear up the matter as it seemed to get murkier.

Hard-charging media organizations like the Times often demand full disclosure from the government agencies or corporations that stumble into controversial territory. But, when media get into trouble, they often get defensive, say they’ve been misunderstood or say it’s nobody else’s business.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says journalists should “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

Another good guideline in a crisis is: Tell it all and tell it fast. That advice comes from Frank M. Corrado, a Chicago communications specialist.

Some observers say the New York Times affair has settled into “navel gazing by the media,” described as an occupational hazard. The writer of that sentiment wondered why Abramson was fired only nine days after the Times’s chief executive “gushed” about her.

A Vanity Fair report, including an interview with Sulzberger explaining his intentions, said “The New York Times is an institution whose employees are adept at, perhaps addicted to, in-house Kremlinology.” Even those closest to the story are wondering if they know the true story, or the whole story.

Women flocked to Abramson’s defense, but it was not universal.

Some of the more thoughtful and detailed information about the New York Times affair appears in The New Yorker, by Ken Auletta. He says:

“It is an affair in which neither side behaved well or with any finesse and the institution, which is so central to American journalism, suffered.”

 

 

 

 

Ethical Issues in Mobile Reporting

It was great to see ethical issues come up Friday in a Twitter chat about doing journalism with mobile devices.

Katy Culver, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and visiting faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, moderates biweekly #EdShift chats for PBS MediaShift on innovation in journalism education. Much of Friday’s chat, involving both journalists and journalism professors, focused on tips and tools for mobile reporting. But Culver, who is also associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at Wisconsin, included a question about ethical concerns.

The tweets in response addressed both specific challenges and broader points about navigating the ethics of mobile journalism.

A reporter from Appleton, Wisconsin, raised an issue in covering accidents that comes with the instant capability of mobile devices:

Steve Buttry, who does training for Digital First Media, pointed to challenges related to accuracy. They are connected both with size and features of mobile devices and the sense of urgency that goes with mobile reporting.

He also noted the need to identify oneself clearly as a journalist:

A journalism professor from Germany pointed out an issue related to photographic features that come with mobile phones.

In only a few words, these journalists highlighted a range of ethical challenges in mobile journalism. A radio reporter from Washington, D.C., noted the broader issue of the great power of these small tools and the responsibility that goes with it:

Another D.C. radio reporter did a good job of pointing out that the specifics of mobile journalism ethics are a work in progress:

I don’t think we’ve received any calls on the Ethics AdviceLine about issues in mobile journalism, but we’d love to be a sounding board for journalists thinking through decisions about reporting and editing on their phones.

Jayson Blair

 

By Casey Bukro

Jayson Blair lied, plagiarized and fabricated stories, shaming the New York Times where he worked.

Why would he do that, knowing that the eyes of the world were focused on one of the world’s great newspapers?

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, seemly comes as close as anyone to an answer in a recent column — Blair simply believed he’d never get caught.

It’s a myth, says Blair, that fear of being caught keeps people from doing unethical things. After getting away with it, “once you cross that barrier where you know the chances are you won’t be caught, it becomes very hard to discipline yourself,” Pitts quotes Blair.

It’s a fantasy. And that could be part of the answer.

Anyone in journalism who believes nobody really pays attention to accuracy and fairness is delusional.  The American Journalism Review, in writing about Blair, pointed to other journalists who met their downfalls through dishonesty. It’s usually a matter of time before the distortions that lying create are noticed.

Blair did leave a legacy of sorts.  Some journalists contend media are more concerned about fact-checking now. Maybe.

Recently, films and television broadcasts focused on Blair.

“A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times” is a 75-minute documentary.

Blair had a record of poor work habits at the New York Times, which should have raised red  flags before it was too late to prevent what has been described as “one of the most notorious scandals in the history of American journalism.” Some heads rolled.

Now out of journalism,  Blair is described as a “life coach.”

This season of Blair mania comes while several journalism organizations are writing or rewriting codes of ethics, such as the Society of Professional Journalists. Such documents usually list activities that journalists should or should not do.

But rarely do they mention consequences for people like Jayson Blair, who believe there are no consequences for lying, cheating and stealing. They just cross the barrier and set the stage for another scandal.

 

 

Ethics Codes

 

By Casey Bukro

Codes of ethics sound like such noble things.

They can be inspirational and aspirational, statements of our highest moral and professional conduct.

Like any description of what is good, the devil is in the details.  And where journalists are involved, the effort can bring out the devil in them. Some seem to handle it better than others.

For instance, three journalism groups are considering revising or creating codes of ethics: The Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Online News Association.

The SPJ effort stands out because of the degree of conflict that erupted over charges by one of SPJ’s regional directors, Michael Koretzky, that the organization’s national ethics committee has conducted the code revision process largely in secrecy. Koretzky is a member of SPJ’s national board.

“It’s been difficult to get answers,” Koretzky said in an e-mail to SPJ leaders. Koretzky  launched his attack against the national ethics committee by e-mailing his “journoterrorist” blog illustrated with 11 panels that graphically compares SPJ’s code revision efforts with ONA’s.

Kevin Smith, SPJ’s national ethics committee chair,  denied “this conspiracy theory of secrecy in revising the code,” adding “we have nothing to hide.”

Koretzky replied that he never said anything about a conspiracy, but “the fact remains that no one has explained to the SPJ board (or anyone else) how the first draft of the code revision was compiled” and who was involved.

David Cuillier, SPJ’s president, added this to the chain of e-mails: “You’re absolutely right, Michael, that we have not communicated the process, or engaged members and non-members, as effectively as ONA.” No conspiracy or secrecy, he added, “but the ultimate outcome is a much more low-key effort on our part. All true.”

SPJ adopted its present code in 1996.

The American Journalism Review described the struggles over SPJ’s proposed code revision.

The Online News Association is working on a novel approach, which it calls “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” a crowdsourced ethics code.

ONA describes it as a toolkit “to help news outlets, bloggers and journalists decide on ethical guidelines that match their own ideas about reporting and journalism.”

The ethics guide would be a constantly updated online document. Reporters will be encouraged to publish the ethics codes they create, and to hold themselves and their news outlets accountable to them, said ONA. In other words, it would be largely voluntary.

RTDNA’s ethics code was last updated in 2000, “and I don’t need to tell you how greatly our technology and our newsrooms have changed in 14 years!” said Mike Cavender, RTDNA”s executive director.

One of the central questions in revising or creating codes of ethics is whether they should reflect changing technology, or state undying principles that apply regardless of technological changes.

RTDNA asked its members to complete a survey. “The goal is to insure that a new code fits our business as it stands today, without straying from the principles that define outstanding journalism.”

All three code-writing efforts are in the round one stage, with more rounds to follow. SPJ’s national ethics committee is expected to report its findings at the organization’s annual convention in September.

All three are worth watching to see if they end in a win, or in a knockout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olympic Tears

By Casey Bukro

Olympic skier Bode Miller cried as NBC’s Christin Cooper interviewed him, asking him a string of questions about the influence Miller’s dead brother might have had on the skier’s bronze metal performance in the race he had just finished.

Midway through the interview, tears streaming down his face, stammering at times, Miller bowed his helmeted head and fell silent. Cooper placed a hand on Miller’s arm and said: “Sorry.”

The media and the world in general have come down hard on Cooper,  a former Olympic skier herself in the 1984 games, for “pushing too hard” in the Miller interview.

In the aftermath of this furor, Miller proved to be a class act. He tweeted, “please be gentle w christen cooper, it was crazy emotional and not at all her fault.” In another tweet, he said “she asked questions that every interviewer would have, pushing is part of it, she wasn’t trying to cause pain.”

Miller has a point. It is the nature of television to go for the visual and the emotional. Cooper noted that Miller looked to the sky moments before starting his medal-winning Alpine Super-G run, implying he might be thinking about his brother Chelone, who died at the age of 29 last year after suffering a seizure. Miller said later there was some truth to that.

Cooper is one of those attractive sport figures turned broadcasters. Without a background in professional journalism, there is reason to believe Cooper simply does not understand or did not have the depth of experience to learn how far to go. She is co-founder of a restaurant in Bozeman, Montana.

There are boundaries in good taste and ethics that professional journalists learn to recognize, or should learn to recognize.

At least credit Cooper for saying “sorry,” perhaps moved by seeing how emotionally distraught Miller became by her questions about Chelone.

Television puts attractive but nonprofessional commentators in sensitive situations at its own peril. That might be one of the lessons of the Sochi Olympics in Russia.

Although much of the criticism rained down on Cooper, nothing was said about the excessive time NBC’s camera followed Miller after he walked away from Cooper, then slumped down weeping against a low wall until his wife came to comfort him. It was too much.

The Cooper interview has been timed by the New York Times at 75 seconds. But the camera lingered on Miller far longer after he ended the interview by walking away.  At that point, the interview was over. Miller should have been left alone in his private grief, instead of being hounded by the camera.

Maybe it was NBC’s idea of good TV, but it was  a bad way to treat a human being.