Adapted from Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, 2000.
In a 1980 essay, John Hersey, the reporter and novelist — his nonfiction classic “Hiroshima” is a skillful example of narrative reconstruction — drew an obvious but important distinction between journalism and fiction. “There is one sacred rule of journalism,” Hersey said. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”
Good advice, and there are writers out who probably wish they had that license plate embossed on their keyboard.
The push for storytelling in journalism has raised the stakes. Reporters are being encouraged to use literary techniques and devices — characters, scenes, dialogues, status details — that have traditionally been the province of the fiction writer.
These details depend on reporting that must go beyond the superficial stenography of quoting what official sources tell reporters and instead require multiple interviews, a search for independent verification and, above all, a consuming, sometimes obsessive, passion for accuracy.
But what is blurry is how you achieve that standard and still write prose that is dramatic, vivid, detailed, compelling, and as true as humanly possible. That’s where the rigor of journalistic and intellectual honesty comes in.
Faced with a bad case of writer’s block, Michael Finkel — the writer who depicted a composite character as real in The New York Times Magazine — lowered his standards to get a draft done.
Howard Kurtz reported in The Washington Post:
Not really. Writing a first draft without notes is one way to avoid plagiarism as well as fight writer’s block. But he didn’t take the next step. He didn’t raise the bar high enough before he submitted the story to his editor. Writing without notes is one thing; submitting a story without them is quite another.
The Ethics of Reconstruction
After the 1998 firings of Stephen Glass, Patricia Smith, and Mike Barnicle, Bob Steele and I formulated the following list of standards to help reporters maintain accuracy and authenticity when reconstructing narratives.
These standards are all about craft.
They focus on the demands of rigorous reporting and vivid writing, as well as the need for sound ethical decision-making. They are not intended to inhibit dramatic storytelling, but rather to reflect the need for writers and editors to meet a high threshold of accuracy and authenticity. These standards can and should be applied to any story.
Questions to Ask When Writing and Editing a Narrative That Reconstructs Events
- How do I know that what I have presented really happened the way I say it did?
- Is it true? According to whom?
- Do I not only have the facts right but also the right facts?
- How complete is my reconstruction? Is it based on one source, two or several? Have I tested it against the memory of other participants?
- Have I sought independent verification from documentary sources, such as historical accounts or public records? For example, my source describes a “dark and stormy night.” Did I call the National Weather Service and get the weather report for that date?
- Do I have a high level of confidence in my sources? Could I have been fooled by an unreliable source or a source with a faulty memory or an ax to grind?
- Is my purpose legitimate? Am I trying to convey the reality of an event for my readers or simply trying to entertain or impress people with my writing ability?
- Does lack of attribution — a hallmark of reconstruction — diminish credibility? Does a reconstruction need an editor’s note to help readers understand how the story was reported and sourced?
- Am I willing and able to fully disclose and explain my method to my editor? to my readers?
Stories often flounder on adequate attribution. Writers worry that attribution will slow down the narrative. As the columnist Roger Rosenblatt said, Stephen Ambrose’s point “seems to be that his narrative momentum would have been impeded by the use of quotations marks or by a completely original text — a defense a shoplifter might use when explaining that he would have paid for his stolen items, but that would have broken his stride on the way out of the store.”
But you don’t have to sacrifice reader trust for narrative flow. Last October, when The Wall Street Journal printed a reconstruction of what happened to five people at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, an editor’s note explained how the story was reported. But then the paper took the extraordinary step of appending a box to the end detailing their sources. Here’s what readers saw when they began the story:
And here’s what they read at the end:
Mike Miller, the page one editor, said the Journal staff was wrestling with conflicting impulses — the paper’s storytelling tradition and the fact that the “intense ethic and tradition here is to tell readers where information comes from, and keep the faith with readers that we have everything completely nailed.
“Sometimes there’s tension between those two impulses when you have a beautiful read that you don’t want to fill with attribution speed bumps,” Miller says. “And yet, we have a responsibility to tell readers where information, especially nonintuitive information, comes from.
“As a reader, I want to know where stuff comes from. I’m the kind of reader that reads footnotes. I just want to know, ‘How’d you get that?’ I love books that explain every step of the story.
“You get such a feeling of credibility and authority when you’re reading a book or a newspaper story and you can see where everything came from. It’s like sleeping on a comfortable mattress when you have the reporter’s trail in front of you to follow.”
John Hersey’s legend on the license only does half the job.
In the late 1980s he apologized for lifting material from another writer’s book, and Anne Fadiman, the editor of The American Scholar, says Hersey pilfered her journalist mother’s combat dispatches during World War II. It seems that Hersey needed to add another line to his license: “And none of it was lifted from another writer.”
It’s easier than ever to plagiarize. Before computers and scanners, you had to copy someone’s words by hand or with a typewriter. Now you can lift text verbatim with a simple copy and paste.
If you’re not careful when you’re taking notes, you may find yourself accused of plagiarism. Like many writers caught using others’ words, you’ll claim the defense of carelessness or sloppy note-taking. Still, you may get fired or, if you’re lucky, suspended.
It doesn’t take much. Michael Kramer of Time and his editors apologized after the writer took just a single sentence from a Los Angeles Times article. Five paragraphs from The Boston Globe, slightly rewritten and reorganized, tripped up respected New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield.
The Globe paragraphs reveal that it’s not just quotes that count. The next time you paraphrase something for a news story, remember what Judy Hunter, a teacher at Grinnell College in Iowa, tells first-year students: “In a bad paraphrase, you merely substitute words, borrowing the sentence structure or the organization directly from the source. In a good paraphrase you offer your reader a wholesale revision, a new way of seeing the text you are paraphrasing. You summarize, you reconstruct, you tell your reader about what the source has said, but you do so entirely in your own words, your own voice, your own sentence structure, your own organization.”
In too many newsrooms, the punishment for plagiarism doesn’t match the crime. “Punishment is uneven, ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses,” concluded Trudy Lieberman after a close examination of 20 newspapers and magazines for Columbia Journalism Review. “The sin itself carries neither public humiliation nor the mark of Cain. Some editors will keep a plagiarist on staff or will knowingly hire one if talent outweighs the infraction.”
In her analysis, Lieberman blamed “the profession’s inability to define exactly” what constitutes plagiarism. That’s a big problem, especially in a deadline profession that relies on the precise use of words. She also blamed “an evolving journalistic culture that has come to rely heavily on borrowing and quoting from other publications as a substitute for original research. Reporters also tend to use the same sources, who offer the same pithy quote or put the same spin on an issue.”
There’s a word for that: laziness. Confronted with someone else’s words, well-written or containing information or insights you don’t possess, it takes little work to simply use them as your own. Some experts attribute plagiarism to a psychological problem. Although that may be valid, I think the real problem is that the industry has failed to adequately discuss the problem.
In its Code of Ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists says only, “Never plagiarize.” As a profession, journalism has not provided writers and editors with the specific guidelines and standards they need to avoid plagiarism. The invention of movable type created a mass medium that offered an irresistible opportunity for thieving, or lazy, writers.
Part of the problem lies in the competitive nature of the news business. Reporters and editors don’t want to admit they got scooped by another paper, or they don’t want or know how to conduct original research. The profession would rather perpetuate the myth of the journalist as Lone Ranger, collecting information single-handedly and weaving a seamless web of prose without any help from anyone. The academic world has had its share of plagiarism, too, but at least schools do a better job of articulating what the offense entails.
The moment of truth isn’t when you’re confronted with the evidence — those incontrovertible side by side comparisons — but before that, when you’re reading your story or the notes you’ve copied down in your research and can’t really say for sure whose words they are.
That’s the time to say, hold it. Go back and check.
You say your editor won’t wait. Deadline’s here and waits for no journalist.
Faced with the alternative — an apologetic letter to your readers, the journalistic death sentence that these sins sometimes mete out — oh, they’ll wait.
Whether they trust you or your stories again is another question. Better to stop now and ask yourself what methods you use to avoid reaching that awful, desperate dilemma.
Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism
- Avoid what Marilyn Randall calls “note-book syndrome”: words copied from other sources that make their way, unattributed, into your copy. Write your first draft without notes. Remember the story is in your head, not in your notes. Make a note where you want to insert a quote.
- Give credit. Thomas Mallon, author of Stolen Words, an engaging history of plagiarism, says writers should follow a general rule: “If you think you should attribute it, then attribute it.”
- The only way you can use a quote from another publication is if you attribute it. (“The mayor is crazy,” Smith told the Daily Blatt.) The need for attribution should be enough to make you realize you should do the interview yourself, unless that is impossible. (“The mayor is crazy,” Smith told the Daily Blatt the day before he disappeared.)
- Consider using a text box or online links. In some magazines, readers are pointed to source materials for the story if they wish to pursue the subject further.
- Always identify the sources of your information as you are gathering it.
- If you copy something verbatim be sure to put it in quotes and identify the page number and source, whether it’s a book or magazine or page on the World Wide Web. If you are paraphrasing, be sure to include the source.
- Note your sources: book title, author, page number; address of a Web page (you’d be wise, given how often links expire, to make a printout).
- Manage your time wisely. Plagiarism is a desperate act. Writers behind on a deadline, exhausted, anxious, may delude themselves into believing that what they’re doing is nothing more than a shortcut. When in doubt, check with your editor.
- The bottom line: Be honest about where you got your information.
Don’t steal. Honor instead. Writers belong to a community whose ancestors reach back to early man. Why not pay homage to the writers and thinkers who influenced you?
If there is a profile of the kind of writer who fabricates and plagiarizes, it’s an ambitious and desperate, often — but not always — young reporter, anxious to succeed and often in over his or her head. If you’re tempted to fudge a quote, to put a comment into an unnamed source’s mouth for whatever reason — you procrastinated, you’re hung over, you stayed up too late the night before — there is another option. Tell your editor you can’t deliver the story. You may suffer consequences, but it’s doubtful they will be as dire as those experienced by Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith, Janet Cooke, and Stephen Glass, who lost their jobs and whose reputations will always be tarnished.
Ultimately, it all comes down to honesty and a sense of personal integrity. I hate to pick on a dead man, but from what I know about John Hersey, integrity wasn’t always his strong suit. He lacerated the New Journalists even though as a writer for Life during World War II, he used a composite character. He has admitted to plagiarizing from another writer.
Hersey gave good advice on fabrication: live by the rule that “None of this is made up.” Sadly, he should have added a line to his legend: “…or lifted from another writer’s story.”
Hersey, John. “The Legend on the License.” The Yale Review, 70, 1980.
Fadiman, Anne. “Nothing New Under the Sun.” Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Mallon, Thomas. Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism. Harvest Books, 2001.
Plagiarism in the Information Age
Chip Scanlan, Poynter.org
The Unoriginal Sin
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter.org
Plagiarize, Plagiarize, Plagiarize… only be sure to call it research
Trudy Lieberman, Columbia Journalism Review
Panel discussion on Plagiarism
Society of Professional Journalists
Want My Story? Help Yourself!
Ken Layne, Online Journalism Review
“Changing the Rules”
Dan Kennedy, The Boston Phoenix
A Commitment and a Confession
Robert Rivard, The San Antonio Express-News
Plagiarism in the News
A. L. Trupe
The Line Between Fact and Fiction
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter.org
The Musings of Michael Finkel
Carter G. Walker, Outside Bozeman
Storytelling vs Truth Telling
Bill Kovach, Nieman Foundation