The Global War on Plagiarism: Fighting the Pirates of the Press

I’ve been tracking plagiarism cases in journalism for more than 20 years now; my first take was a 1983 Washington Journalism Review article titled “The Unoriginal Sin.”

Every editor I talked with back then had a serious plagiarism story to tell, with malefactors suffering all kinds of fates, from suicide to firing to, strangest of all, consignment to the copy desk.

Thank you, Mr. Fox, you are now in charge of the henhouse.

The journalism world is cratered with plagiarism cases, the latest coming at The Seattle Times, where a business columnist has resigned and a Poynter trouble-shooter, Bob Steele, has been flown in to conduct revival meetings.

The word plagiarism means “kidnap,” and each word-snatch has its own peculiar characteristics. But some patterns repeat themselves time and again.

  1. Almost all cases of serious plagiarism are intentional.
  2. Serious plagiarism by adults is a moral flaw, not an ethical one.
  3. Not all cases of plagiarism are equal.
  4. With guidance, supervisors can exercise discretion and match punishments to the severity of the crime.
  5. There are special cases in journalism that require special attention, the articulation of standards and practices, and, yes, training.
  6. The Internet complicates all of this. Veteran journalists from Spain complained to me of younger reporters who practiced a kind of cut-and-paste journalism from the comfort of their computer chairs.

Suzy Hansen reports in The New York Times that 40 percent of college students admit to Internet plagiarism.

So what’s an editor to do?

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  1. Announce to your staff that plagiarism is a serious problem in all of journalism, and that you assume there will be cases in your newsroom.
  2. Insist that serious plagiarism is a firing offense.< to>
  3. Develop some protocols around the gray areas listed above.
  4. Publish these, review them every year, make them part of any orientation of new staffers.
  5. Develop training sessions on “the tools of originality,” with particular attention to note-taking, file-keeping, methods of attribution, and the Internet.
  6. Without creating a “rat squad,” let staffers know that they can blow the whistle on malpractice in confidence.
  7. Train editors how to act on such complaints from both inside and outside the newsroom.
  8. Consult with a company about using computer technology to conduct random plagiarism checks on reporter’s work.
  9. Pray.
  10. Pray.
  11. Pray.
  12. Pray.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article reported that Stephen Dunphy was fired by the Seattle Times. In fact, as Times editor Michael Fancher reported Sunday, he resigned.

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