Why the emphasis on young, promising journalists who plagiarize or fabricate?

Usually after an article of mine is published, I go back and reread it several times over the next 48 hours. This is mostly a masochistic exercise. I cringe over inelegant sentences and other things I failed to see and improve the first time.

Sometimes, however, I go back to a piece because the feedback I received sticks with me. That’s the case with my recent post, “4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits.”

The comments on the post were spirited and interesting, and other journalists used it as a jumping off point for their own thoughts. My Poynter colleague Roy Peter Clark suggested we could better prevent plagiarism and fabrication if newsrooms began instituting random checks of content. I agree.

John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun followed with a post, “The pressure’s on, and the editor’s gone.” He focused on what was probably the most quoted/tweeted excerpt from my piece:

Newsrooms ask for more, but offer less support. They expect performance, but devalue oversight and mentoring.

McIntyre added this:

Yes, you can save a pile of money by eliminating editors. You can also save money by eliminating inspectors at meat-packing plants. The question is what you plan to do about the inevitable consequences.

The people who fabricate and plagiarize are unquestionably responsible for their actions. But there is an element of collective responsibility that is often pushed aside or diminished when these incidents occur.

McIntyre points out there is a price to pay for reduced oversight and quality control: We are less equipped to prevent these incidents.

Clark also reminds us that newsrooms by and large do nothing to specifically discover these incidents ourselves. They are almost always detected by people outside of the news organization.

Focus on young journalists

Reaction to my post led me to believe I created confusion, and made some feel I was unfairly targeting young journalists. It’s right there in headline: “4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits.” I mention young writers many times in the post. That led to feedback from some journalists:

And this:

Or this:

An important point I should have made more clear is young journalists aren’t the only people who commit plagiarism or fabrication. (I’ll speak to Paul’s second criticism below.)

Veteran reporters and journalists in all career stages plagiarize and fabricate. We need look no further than Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission of plagiarism.

My Poynter colleague Kelly McBride is often contacted by news organizations when they discover an incident of plagiarism and/or fabrication. I asked her to share her analysis of whether age can be a factor in these incidents:

I’ve analyzed a lot of plagiarism and fabrication cases and I can say that veterans are not immune from the problem. However, I think when someone with more than 15 years of experience in daily journalism is busted for one of these transgressions, it usually reveals some deep, deep problem, like depression or addiction or some other something else going haywire.

That’s not to say that young journalists who’ve been caught stealing or making stuff up aren’t sometimes suffering from serious life issues. But by the time someone is into the late 30s, we expect him to have the maturity to stop the domino effect before it fatally impacts his work.

I can say that whenever an editor comes to me with suspicions of plagiarism or fabrication, I suggest they go back and look at past work. It seems like 90 percent of the time they find more. And that is true of veterans and novices. So that suggests to me that these acts of deception are patterns of choices, or habits, that both young and mid-career journalists are capable of making.

If you catch it early enough, I think you can reform a younger writer. I’m not sure what to do about the veterans.

Her final point speaks to one reason why I looked at young journalists. The focus on young journalists — which would include me, if you take Kelly’s late 30s threshold as the mark of an older journalist — is partly because we have an opportunity and responsibility to help them succeed and create good, ethical habits. I worry that’s happening less these days in shrunken newsrooms with non-existent training budgets.

Certainly, it must be said, some people are beyond help and simply need to be weeded out quickly.

Another obvious reason for looking at young journalists is the most recent incidents of fabrication involved young journalists. In looking at these cases, I saw similarities that also evoked the cases of Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and other famous young and, dare I say, once-promising journalists-turned-fabricators.

In my post, I turned these similarities into warning signs that people in newsrooms can identify early on, and hopefully nudge a person onto the right path. Or get them the hell out of the profession as soon as possible.

That leads to another important question I wish I had an answer to: When do people start doing this? Do young journalists get busted in seemingly higher numbers because people start doing this early in a career?

This is where I admit to being frustrated by a lack of data. (As background, I’ve been cataloguing incidents of plagiarism and fabrication since 2005. To view an overview of that data, read my 2011 roundup.)

I try to count the number of incidents of plagiarism and fabrication each year, but I don’t know when people start or why. This would be a great area of research, provided someone can gain access to fabricators and plagiarists.

The question of pressure

Along with my focus on young journalists, Canadian journalist Paul McLeod said on Twitter that he didn’t agree with the suggestion that “it could happen to any of us.” This related to a quote from Jayson Blair near the end of my post:

I think fundamentally because of this trust in each other, our colleagues and our friends, we’re very slow to realize that any of us, under the right pressure, is capable of anything.

Paul asked me if I really believed that anyone could be capable of plagiarizing or fabricating:

This goes to McBride’s point that she’s often seen a link between a personal issue and a more experienced journalist’s decision to plagiarize or fabricate. Pressures can take many forms: financial, professional, emotional, etc.

My point is that plagiarists and fabricators aren’t some “other.” They are us. They are people who make these decisions for a reason, and the way news organizations operate makes it possible for a number of them to get away with it for at least a certain period of time.

If we look at plagiarists and fabricators as a strange kind of species separate from the rest of us, then I think it’s easier to convince ourselves that it can’t happen in our newsroom, with our colleagues.

But it can and it does.

It happens in newsrooms large and small, with men and women, and, yes, with young and old.

When you think about it, the one thing they always have in common is that they are journalists.

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