By Casey Bukro
Journalism student Emily Bloch thought she saw something familiar while reading a story in the Boca Raton Tribune. It looked like something she had written, exactly the way she had written it.
Turned out it was a case of plagiarism, for which the Tribune writer was fired. He had copied material Bloch had written for the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper, the University Press, about an alleged campus rape.
Students sometimes are accused of copying material written by professional journalists, but in this case the professional journalist copied material written by a student. The case was reported by New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Plagiarism often is a career-killing offense in journalism, although not always.
A Columbia Journalism Review report found that punishment for plagiarism falls in an grey area “ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses.”
It’s an editor’s decision, one that takes a writer’s talents and past performance into consideration. In other words, how badly does an editor need that writer or how easily could that writer be replaced? And, it is no secret that editors sometimes have favorites, known among staffers as “friends of the editor’s” or FOEs.
Editors might look for a pattern of plagiarism before taking disciplinary steps.
In these days of the Internet, much is made of the ease with which text can be stolen or copied and pasted. Cut-and-paste is a dangerous practice. The only good case for it is for citing a direct quote accurately. It is commonly used in the drafting stage, but a writer might forget to recast the material.
Equally easy is finding online plagiarism checkers, or reports that list the latest examples of plagiarism, or plagiarism “hit lists” of famous journalists gone wrong. Where are they now? For the most part, out of journalism.
At The New York Times a reporter, Jayson Blair, lost his job for plagiarism, and another, Maureen Dowd, didn’t.
They were named in a Plagiarism Today report by Jonathan Bailey called “5 Famous Plagiarists: Where Are They Now?”
The so-called “celebrity plagiarists,” for the most part, “seemed to land on their feet,” according to Bailey.
In its report on top 10 cases of plagiarism and attribution, Media Ethics in 2012 named Jonah Lehrer, formerly of The New Yorker, as its No. 1 plagiarist for plagiarizing himself.
“We’re putting him on our top plagiarist list since being busted for self-plagiarism led to his downfall,” said writer Sydney Smith. How do you plagiarize yourself, you might ask?
Lehrer’s blogs duplicated content he previously published for other outlets. He also made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.
The Poynter Institute also published a roundup of plagiarism and fabrication cases, by Mallary Jean Tenore, showing “the range of actions news organizations have taken and some of the factors they’ve considered when making these decisions.”
Plagiarism is a slippery slope. One might argue that plagiarism could be committed by accident. But the profiles of serial plagiarists show that it’s usually not a one-time mistake. It’s a choice.
In most cases, it becomes a pattern or a bad habit, perhaps because it seems so easy. And because some get away with it for some time, they might think they can get away with it indefinitely.
It’s an illusion. One of the benefits of the Internet are the millions of eyes on our words, including print editions. Many people are voracious readers of news reports, foreign and domestic. They recognize when identical paragraphs appear in two or more publications, and don’t hesitate telling editors.
A reader once notified the Chicago Tribune that one of its stories bore an uncanny resemblance to a story in the Jerusalem Post. An investigation proved that he was right. A Tribune reporter had taken text from the Post, a publication half a world away from Chicago.
Astute readers are unpaid “copy cops,” and anyone who works for a publication knows what I mean. They are really good at catching errors, among other things, and enjoy playing “gotcha.”
I think it’s fair to say the industry standard is zero tolerance for plagiarism. Penalties can be harsh even for a single infraction.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics flatly says: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”
I suppose I fall into the zero tolerance camp for plagiarism, because zero means zero. Otherwise, journalists can argue over how much is allowed and how much is not.
My intolerance dates from my earliest days of writing the 1973 version of the SPJ code of ethics. Some ethics committee members argued for a little of this, and a little of that. It was hard to define how much is a little, or too much.
So I decided that it’s best to draw a bright line. No means no, and there is no quibble room to haggle over.
Journalists are terrible hagglers and nit-pickers. The result is a long, drawn-out process that sometimes does not reach a conclusion or a consensus. Get a room full of journalists and they will argue over all the possibilities and change the punctuation. There is a point at which that is not productive. Best to draw bright lines.
Plagiarism is theft. It can’t be allowed.