Journalism has an originality problem, not a plagiarism problem

Professional journalism isn’t facing a plagiarism problem. It’s facing an originality failure.

And you can’t blame the Internet. Our originality breakdown results from many pressures — the overwhelming volume of writing incessantly pushed out into the digital space, the pressure on writers to feed a content beast that’s never satiated, the diminishing economic forces that support professional writing.

The Internet preceded all of these changes, but it isn’t itself the cause.

The methods we use to groom writers to become original thinkers in the modern media environment are suspect. In fact, they’re largely absent.

This week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s work was scrutinized for relying too heavily on the work of others. She’s not alone.

We have no way of knowing whether, proportionally, there’s more plagiarism in journalism today than there was 20 years ago. But we do know that commentators now work in very different circumstances. It used to be that local columnists used the phone and their feet. They spent time out of the office, just like their reporter colleagues. They went to the bar, the barbershop, the local college, the courtroom.

Why? Because, that’s where ideas took shape. Talking and thinking, thinking and talking, then trying it out on the keyboard. That’s how writers write.

Sometimes, the work was good; more often, it was mediocre. Sometimes, editors sent it back. Whatever the quality, the ideas belonged to the columnist, informed by her reporting and research but grown in the writer’s head.

This isn’t to condemn the research patterns of modern journalists, who start their thinking with a Google search. We can’t pretend the media world hasn’t changed. These days, we must see always what others have written before we begin – and there’s so much that’s been written about any given topic because writing now is mostly the continuation of a conversation already in play.

Before the Internet, newsrooms were lucky enough to stumble into a method for growing writers. It wasn’t perfect and there certainly were scandals, such as when The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke fabricated a character in a story that went on to win the Pulitzer, or when Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle stole material from comedian George Carlin and others. But those were few and far between.

These days, it feels like hardly a week goes by without a professional journalist being exposed for plagiarism, fabrication or patchwriting, which is a failed attempt at paraphrasing that over-relies on the original writer’s syntax and vocabulary. That last transgression is likely today’s most common sin, according to Rebecca Moore Howard, the Syracuse University professor of writing and rhetoric who coined the term.

Originality is elusive today in every place that people write – not just in journalism, but in academia, professional writing, book publishing, speech writing and politics.

In our panic to keep up with a changing world, we’ve failed to identify new methods for originality. We need to look to the writer-editor relationship, to the community of writers and thinkers, and to the very process that writers use to go from nothing to something.

We’re mystified by the prospect of building a culture that breeds original thinking and writing in today’s digital world. Yet, we can look to writers who are successfully hitting the mark of originality and imitate their methods.

Today’s most original successful writers often combine the new and the old to foster their thinking. Writers such as Anne Lamott or columnist Connie Schultz test out their ideas in social media settings such as Twitter or Facebook. And they stay grounded in the real world, allowing for the influence of other people and experiences.

If we’re going to solve the problem of unoriginal writing, we need to focus on the process of writing, instead of simply careening from one failure to another.

A version of this originally appeared on the Globe and Mail website.

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  • James Sweet

    I’m not convinced that the apparent increased rate of scandals isn’t the result of better detection. It’s a lot easier to detect, e.g. patchwriting, when Googling a patchwritten paragraph has a reasonable chance of turning up the original.

    Nevertheless, a thoughtful and worthwhile article.

  • Read You

    Originality isn’t just in the content of the origins of the story. While I always want new stories instead of ones I’ve read on the WWW, or local papers, I could find value in a redefinition of them. As we move farther and farther from the time of publication of articles, the significance of them changes a fair bit, if not in entirety.

    A good journalist will redefine the reasons for covering something that has been written about before. A bad journalist will simply reiterate while trying to add their “voice” to the article in order to avoid plagiarism. This can be done without offering huge sinker words and biases within the article to attract ‘likes’ etc. How often does this happen? Like never… The only exception I find is when people post new scientific information related to old scientific information. But what I’m saying a journalist that wants to be worth their salts can do, is redefine the original scientific information. It is basically looking at the linguistics and how that changes the importance of relation to the readers. It isn’t a new idea (haha), but currently today it is absolutely losing the battle against creative writing being the deployment in all low level journalism.

    To be frank, while I know I can read some ten page article in The New Yorker to get something half way worth my time, I don’t. Usually they can be summed up considerably quicker. The length is sort of a way for a publisher to cater to people; a way to cater to people that just don’t get it and boost the ego’s of those that do. Well believe it or not, I feel most people can understand somewhat interesting, somewhat complex, topics if they are written well. To say that is also to say short articles could be presenting complex things very well – at least in a tolerable length.

  • Anonymous

    Before Google, we had newspaper morgues to check before we began writing, and bulging paper files for things that we covered regularly. So reporters in that ancient time also consulted what had been written before beginning. It wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as Google, but the operating principles were the same. And some writers found a way to plagiarize without Google’s help, too.

    Paul Raeburn

    Science Journalism Tracker.

  • Clayton Burns

    Kelly, You are factually wrong in relation to Margaret Wente. See Media Culpa:
    Sunday, September 30, 2012
    Margaret Wente, Twitter, Plagiarism, and Nicholas Carr

  • Chris Boese

    It’s not just originality. Some of it is excessive “norming” on the part of the editorial class. They’ll only accept something that’s “like” something they’ve seen before. The result is punitive. Any text that deviates too far from the excessive norming gets laughed out of the slush pile or cast into the bottomless pit.

    This happens in MFA programs, in How-To books, and in all levels of university writing classes. Sameness is reinforced as rigidly as high school peer group dress codes. However, we do live in a digital age of replication. So everything looks replicated? Go figure.

    And sometimes, I even think of an odder cause than other other culprits: population size. Exponential population growth has happened relatively invisibly, even as we experience some crowding in some areas. But visualizing exponential numbers, whether the wealth of the super-mega-rich, or the numbers of eyeballs staring at the same screen for hours on end, that’s not the same as how one can see the numbers of people doing choreographed routines in the Chinese Summer Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies, or marching and saluting together en masse in Nuremberg in Triumph of the Will. Numbers you can SEE are far different from abstractions hidden inside a black box.

    But think about being a writer in the Victorian era. Say, an American Transcendentalist. You got your Commonplace book. You’re in the literate classes, which means you have some base level of class and wealth (already out of the slush pile masses). Maybe you’re Emily Dickinson and you don’t know if your words “breathe.” Maybe you really believe “Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man.” Or maybe you’re Thoreau and you really wish your mother would hurry up and bring you some more groceries out there in the woods, so that you don’t accidentally burn them down, trying to cook. Thoreau, “underachiever and proud of it,” according to Emerson, who despaired that instead of “engineering for all America,” Thoreau was “captain of the huckleberry party.” He sure didn’t have to work very hard to get his writing taken seriously.

    Or Mr. Whitman, who self-published, when he wasn’t pissing off newspaper owners.

    Stick any of those hyperliterate, otherwise unmediated Victorians into our current age. Better yet, give me two dozen of them! Clones, say.

    What are the odds any of them will distinguish themselves from the crowd today? Fall out of the slush pile? Even get their work read by more than 200 people who subscribe to but never read the obscure literary journal that is the only outlet they have to send their creative output to?

    There’s just A LOT more people now. A LOT more LOTS. Exponentially beyond exponentially. Slush piles on scales that slush piles could never dream of, even in the 1900s.

    What counts as “outstanding” or distinguished” in this recombinant and anachronistic alphabetic literacy world? What criteria allows an evaluation of manuscripts with any kind of discernment? Aesthetics? Editorial whims? What I had for breakfast today?

    And if it is that much harder to distinguish oneself, to succeed in the realm of Arts and Letters, what do you do? Because you are someone who reads, who thinks, who loves, genuinely loves this world, to the point that you can’t do anything other than this kind of work, writing. Someone with talent too, recognizable, to those who have the time to engage and thrill to your ventures into composition. Mothers, siblings, friends, psychiatrists, grandparents, in other words.

    You have THINGS to say. You’re the tree in the vast forest. No one is listening. But Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man, so you become an auctioneer, of sorts. You read books, divining the tea leaves of what publishers want, will accept. You read what editors say, about standards, prescriptive nonsense that amounts to little more than this year’s hemlines. You take that as your bible. You go to workshops and become “coachable,” in an endless cycle of “user testing” of your texts. Do this. Don’t do that. Good heavens, DON’T ever do that!

    The slush pile eats you alive. Conform and you are sane (if ignored for your sameness and uniformity). Demur, you’re straightaway dangerous and handled with a chain (while still being ignored, but for being beyond the pale). Blame yourself. You’re not “good” enough. Try harder. Stop trying. Live in the woods and eat worms.

    But whatever you do, don’t chalk it up to the fact that, in terms of signal to noise, you are not defeated by your lack of talent or inability to follow good advice. You’re defeated by the fact that all of our literary forebears were big fish in very small ponds, when you consider the unimaginable ocean of indistinguishable plankton we all now swim in.

    Note: there’s a chance I deliberately plagiarized Emily Dickinson above. Just in case anyone was wondering.