Jayson Blair is not the standard by which to judge journalistic fraud

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and later Seung-Hui Cho, changed our perception of how horrific and widespread a school massacre could be. They’ll always be with us, invoked whenever a student injures and kills classrooms full of students and teachers — usually to note that the shooting wasn’t as bad as Columbine or Virginia Tech.

Jayson Blair is the Columbine of journalistic fraud. He, too, seems to be invoked every time a journalist is revealed to be a plagiarist.

A run-of-the-mill plagiarist just lifts others’ words; a revolutionary plagiarist like Blair subverts every element of the journalistic process, fabricating scenes, putting words in people’s mouths, pretending to interview people, cloaking his inventions in anonymous sources, even lying about travel to the places he’s supposed to be reporting from.

Kendra Marr’s infractions at Politico seem minor in comparison. But we shouldn’t become desensitized to lesser forms of malpractice just because they’re common among college students whose justification is ignorance, sloppiness or pressure.

“So, Marr was perhaps more of a serial summarizer-without-attribution than a Blair-level fabricator,” wrote Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

“Those who know her well say there is no way Marr did this maliciously or even, necessarily, knowingly,” wrote FishbowlDC’s Betsy Rothstein. “Nor is anyone internally comparing this to a Jayson Blair (formerly with the NYT) type scenario. They reason pressure and sloppiness contributed to her fall.”

Plagiarism runs so contrary to what journalists value, it makes sense for colleagues to try to understand why someone would do it. We should pause, however, before saying that someone didn’t plagiarize maliciously.

Many people who commit crimes — legal crimes, for which you go to prison rather than just losing your job — don’t intend to harm anyone. They still inflict harm. Just because someone doesn’t aim to malign doesn’t make his actions benign.

As for whether Marr did this knowingly, I haven’t talked to her, and I don’t know anything about her work practices. But from Sept. 19 to Oct. 10, she averaged two cases of plagiarism a week. If that was unintentional, I can’t imagine how chaotic her work practices are.

In the last few years, as I’ve stopped taking notes on paper, I’ve become acutely aware of how important it is to have a system for digital note-taking and attribution. Journalists, especially those who primarily work online, must know what words and ideas are theirs and what belong to others.

Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior ethics faculty, recommends against even quoting others’ work in your notes. That creates too much inefficiency for me on deadline, but we should do more of what she recommends instead: “Create bullet points where you synthesize the information in your own words and note the original source.”

Some of her other advice:

  • Before you start to research, write. In the middle of your research, write. Expressing your own thoughts and using your own words will force your brain to flex the self-expression neurons, rather than the repetition neurons.
  • Develop your own voice. Too much information on the Internet is simply repeated. Even if you aren’t doing any original reporting, you can find original expression.

What’s especially frustrating about plagiarism is that in fighting it, we’re fighting yesterday’s war, when news stories were self-contained and singularly authoritative. Some journalists reverted to fraud because they didn’t think they could get the best quote or school themselves on important background in time to make deadline.

Now, there’s more acceptance of the idea that journalists, like people involved in other creative and competitive endeavors, build on and react to each other’s work. And there are established practices for attributing those sources of information and inspiration. We link. We quote. We give credit. Lifting someone’s passages and turns of phrase from others isn’t just wrong; it’s a worthless crime. There is so little to gain, and so much to lose.

I don’t know whether, as my colleague Mallary Tenore reported, news organizations are going easier on journalists who plagiarize and fabricate. I am not particularly surprised when I hear of another reporter being found out. In general, I believe that journalists uncover a minority of the truly damning scandals out there, and that applies to our own industry as well.

When we hear of the next one, we should consider how far the offense deviates from accepted practice rather than comparing it to the worst-case scenario. That’s the standard our readers judge us by.

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  • Anonymous

    From the above news story: “Plagiarism runs so contrary to what journalists value, it makes sense for colleagues to try to understand why someone would do it.”

    Huh? Face it: Plagiarism is the dirty little secret of journalism if, in fact, it’s all that dirty and a secret, too. Who hasn’t taken info from one source — a little here, a little there —  and reported it without attributing it? Oh, maybe the information was supposedly “in the  public domain,” as some would argue, so a journalist would not have to attribute it. But that’s a copout. A great deal of what appears in news stories is gleaned from some other source. Very, very little of it is original material that only one person can claim. In more cases than some would admit, plagiarism is a matter of how you define it and who’s doing the defining.

    So, sure, journalists and editors should be ever vigilant to clear, conspicuous examples of plagiarism, but this breast beating in recent years about how rare plagiarism is in daily journalism is, well, laughable.


  • Anonymous

     If your assertions are true then why are you anonymous, put a name and face behind your words and link to your examples, otherwise you’re credibility is dubious.  

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  • smintheus

    “Whenever we must rely on reporting or ideas that were first produced by others, our policy is to cite and/or link to these sources by name, and aim to be fully transparent with our audience.”

    So says Politico’s editors. It’s laughable. Politico regularly repackages work done by smaller blogs, without attribution. When I’ve complained to Politico reporters that they’ve swiped other bloggers’ reporting, they’ve dug in their heels and refused to add the proper citations.

    In one case a few years ago, a Politico reporter (not Kendra Marr) admitted in response to my email
    that she’d gotten an entire story from an obscure blog…but she thought she had no need to give them any credit because she’d verified the story (or some such nonsense).

    In another case this March, Kendra Marr and Jonathan Martin published a piece that drew on info that I’d originally reported at my blogs. More reputable bloggers (like Steve Benen) gave me credit for the info. But
    Martin declined to credit me, claiming (improbably) that Politico had turned up the same info by reading the same smallish Minnesota website as I had cited in my report.

    More than one of Politico’s bloggers are serial plagiarists. They seem to think that blogs in particular are fair game, and even when caught swiping material from bloggers they’re shameless. They act as if blogtopia is just a stream of anonymous information that they can swig from and then spit out as their own product.

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