The Unoriginal Sin

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 1983 issue of Washington Journalism Review. It was reprinted on Poynter.org in July 2000.

Each day in
American newspapers and magazines, journalists kidnap the words
of other writers without attribution or shame.

The practice
is called plagiarism, a name derived from the Latin word for kidnapper.
In the academic world, it is the most serious of crimes. But in
the world of journalism, a world without footnotes, the snatching
of words and ideas is too often ignored, misunderstood or considered
standard procedure.

Reporters
plagiarize from novels, encyclopedias, textbooks, magazines, wire
stories, syndicated columns, press releases, competing newspapers
and the morgue.

Some who commit
the unoriginal sin are charlatans. Others resort to it in moments
of pressure or personal crisis. Others slide into it out of naivete
or ignorance. They do not know how much borrowing is too much, because
teachers and editors have failed to set limits and suggest guidelines.

Enough examples
of blatant plagiarism have surfaced at good newspapers to make any
conscientious editor wary.

  • In 1975,
    a critic at The Atlanta Constitution borrowed most of a
    film review from Newsweek. Her editors chastised her. The
    woman claimed to have a photographic memory. She begged to be
    given another chance, and was. She did it again and lost her job.
    “It was the stupidest kind of plagiarism,” remembers Ed Sears,
    now managing editor of the The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
    “She took the stuff verbatim from a recent edition of Newsweek.”
  • In 1978,
    a columnist for the Charlotte News kidnapped an old Art
    Buchwald column and published it under his own name. He was new
    to column writing, was responsible for five columns a week, and
    on a dry day resorted to wholesale plagiarism. An alert reader
    discovered it. The columnist apologized to his readers. He was
    moved to the copy desk.
  • In 1980,
    a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote a
    column on the economy described by one of his editors as “brilliant.”
    This surprised no one, as the writer had proven time and again
    that he was capable of such work. The paper was later notified
    by a lawyer that passages from the column were lifted from his
    client’s book. The columnist admitted that he had read a review
    copy of the book, that he had been influenced by it, and that
    he had used it without attribution. Managing editor David Hawpe
    apologized for his columnist in print and eventually moved him
    to the copy desk.
  • In 1981,
    a Los Angeles reporter for the Associated Press resigned after
    it was learned that her story about high-speed races on California
    highways was both a composite and an act of plagiarism. Without
    attribution, the writer used several anecdotes and passages taken
    verbatim from New West magazine. She tricked the reader
    into thinking that she had witnessed the race described in New
    West
    .
  • In February
    of 1982, The New York Times discovered that a freelance
    writer had fabricated a story that appeared in The New York
    Times Magazine.
    Christopher Jones, 24, without leaving Spain,
    wrote an article that created the illusion he had visited remote
    regions of Cambodia and had caught a glimpse of Pol Pot. The hoax
    was uncovered when the Village Voice revealed that Jones’
    ending had been plagiarized from the Andre Malraux novel The
    Royal Way.
    Confronted by Times editors in Spain, Jones
    admitted that he had pilfered Mairaux because “I needed a piece
    of color.”

(As of this
writing, The New York Times Magazine is investigating the
accusation of “unacceptable borrowing” against another of its writers.)

  • In 1972,
    shortly after becoming the editor of the St. Petersburg Times,
    Gene Patterson received a letter from the editor of Better
    Homes and Gardens
    . It contained a copy of an elaborate color
    drawing that had appeared in the Times. Attached to it
    was an identical piece of art from the magazine. “It made me heartsick,”
    said Patterson. “It was a beautifully imaginative, very complicated
    color drawing. Our artist had copied it exactly, in every detail.”
    He was fired. Plagiarism, obviously, is not confined to words.
    The way artists borrow from each other deserves its own investigation.

Almost every
newspaper I have consulted offers an anecdote about serious plagiarism.
I have heard of editorials copied word for word from The New
York Times
and government handouts. I have heard, but have not
been able to verify, stories about a managing editor at a small
paper who routinely plagiarized stories from news magazines, stole
a whole series from a larger newspaper and even stuck his name over
the work of his own reporters. Such a man might have inspired Samuel
Johnson’s famous piece of sarcasm: “Your manuscript is both good
and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the
part that is original is not good.”

Plagiarism
in newspapers (ethical plagiarism, that is, not the violation of
copyright, which is a legal question) is more common than imagined
and in many cases escapes detection. Most cases are cloudier and
less spectacular than the ones cited above. Like defensive pass
interference in football, they may be blatant or accidental, but
they always deserve the yellow flag.

On September
1, 1982, Jerry Bledsoe, a columnist for the Greensboro Daily
News
and Record, called me. He had just read Best
Newspaper Writing 1982
, an annual collection, which I edit,
of the winning articles from the national writing competition sponsored
by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).

One of the
stories, written by Tom Archdeacon of the Miami News, described
Linda Vaughn, the buxom beauty queen of the racing car circuit.
Bledsoe was attracted to the story because in 1975 he had written
The World’s Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time Great Stock Car Racing
Book
, which included a chapter on Linda Vaughn. When he read
Archdeacon’s story, Bledsoe was surprised to see some of his own
words under Archdeacon’s byline. He sent me a copy of his chapter,
underlining 10 instances (about 100 words) in which Archdeacon had
borrowed from him without attribution.

In 1975, Jerry
Bledsoe had written: “To be a race queen is about the only way a
woman can be involved in big time stock car racing.” In 1981, Archdeacon
changed only the tense: “To be a race queen was about the only way
a woman could be involved in big time stock car racing.”

The most damning
passage was one in which Archdeacon used Bledsoe’s language to describe
the reaction of grimy mechanics to this voluptuous woman. In Bledsoe’s
words, the sight of her made them “stand in awe, made them punch
one another in the ribs and giggle like little boys….” Archdeacon
has them “stand in awe, bashful, punching each other in the ribs,
giggling like school boys.”

I wrote a
report that was sent to ASNE seconding Bledsoe’s cry of foul: “I
believe that Tom Archdeacon is guilty of low-grade plagiarism and
high-grade carelessness. There appears to be much original information
in Archdeacon’s story. … But the textual similarities speak for
themselves. If Archdeacon were a student in my college English class,
I’d give him a stern public lecture on the rules of plagiarism and
make him write it again.”

Bledsoe’s
phone call and my report set off a chain reaction. The ASNE contacted
the Miami News. Miami News editors confronted Archdeacon.
He later described the aftermath of that meeting in a report in
the ASNE Bulletin. “It…had the effect of a baseball bat
to the solar plexus. I spoke with them truthfully and quite frankly
and then was excused from the room. I headed for my desk but never
made it. I had to beeline for the bathroom, where I promptly threw
up. And I haven’t felt much better since.”

Archdeacon
told his editors that he admired Bledsoe’s book, that he had used
it for background on Linda Vaughn, and that under deadline he had
confused Bledsoe’s words with his own in more than 100 pages of
sloppily taken notes. “I swear to God,” Archdeacon wrote, “there
was no deviousness intended.”

Archdeacon
flew to Greensboro to apologize to Bledsoe. They met for about 15
minutes in the newspaper coffee shop. “He was very contrite,” says
Bledsoe, “and I felt very sorry for him. It was a gray day and he
was as downcast as the weather.”

It was decided
that Archdeacon would write a mea culpa for the November issue of
the ASNE Bulletin. His publisher, David Kraslow, would declare
that his writer had “made a serious error in judgment.” And the
ASNE board would chastise Archdeacon.

The board
met in Washington, D.C., on October 21-22, and prepared a statement
that read in part: “While what happened is a journalistic misdemeanor
and not a felonyóand appears to be a mistake rather than
plagiarismó the board deplores that such gross carelessness
and sloppiness could be part of the working procedure of such a
talented writer.” Archdeacon kept the award and his job.

In reviewing
the case, it became clear to me that there is little agreement among
journalists as to how the rules against plagiarism should affect
the behavior of reporters. Most newspapers have no rules. Editors
seem loath to define it, especially in marginal cases. Plagiarism
is the skeleton in journalism’s closet.

In preparing
my report on Archdeacon, I found nothing — no guidelines, no
warnings, not even the word plagiarism in indexes of the
newspaper stylebooks and journalism textbooks on my shelf. I had
to turn to English composition texts and handbooks for scholars
for discussion on how much a writer can borrow.

Although most
of the editors and senior staff members of the Miami News
thought Archdeacon had blundered badly, the verdict was not unanimous.
In a memo to ASNE, publisher Kraslow described the feeling of one
dissenter, “that Tom did what most journalists do routinely with
research material — weave it into the body of the story without
attribution.”

The ASNE board,
according to three of its members, did not easily come to a consensus
on whether Archdeacon had committed a mortal or venial sin or what
his penance should be. Nevertheless, “There was no thought of rescinding
the award,” said Bob Stiff, editor of the St. Petersburg Evening
Independent
. Still, these 20 top newspaper editors were hazy
on the definition of plagiarism. “Well, how much borrowing is too
much?” Katherine Fanning, editor and publisher of the Anchorage
Daily News,
asked later. “Three words? Four words?”

The board
accepted the notion that since the borrowing was unintentional,
the act was not plagiarism. Jerry Bledsoe disagrees. “I think they
need to examine their standards,” he said. “I think that they’ve
demeaned their awards.”

Part of the
problem is that all good reporters compile, borrow and assimilate.
“Writers do not read for fun,” writes T. S. Garp. They read for
work. They borrow juxtapositions, images, metaphors, rhythms, puns,
emphases, structures, word orders, alliterations and startling facts.
They store these in their memory banks and in

their commonplace
books. Months later these words emerge in a new context and with
personal meaning, having become their own.

Journalists,
like scholars, write within a climate of ideas, ideas that fly from
newspaper to newspaper like migrating birds. The hardworking and
curious reporter explores each new idea and collects everything
on the landscape. But embedded in these good habits are dangers,
for both the unprincipled and the undisciplined.

While a virtuous
reporter can always avoid crude plagiarism, crude abuses may be
nurtured by the ethically ambiguous practices that go on each day
in newsrooms. Although I have probably practiced some of these myself,
the following procedures now seem dangerous and unprofessional:

ROBBING
THE MORGUE.
We file old newspaper stories in the morgue, a misnomer,
because some of the stories live forever. It is a common and responsible
newspaper practice to dig in those files for background, a sense
of history and perspective. When we cover the trial of a murderer,
we consult the clips on his arrest.

Most journalists
recognize the dangers. Do we, under deadline, borrow paragraphs
verbatim without verification or attribution? Do we recycle old
quotations without letting readers know that a quote may be out
of date or secondhand?

Ed Sears describes
a case in Atlanta where “a reporter had lifted some paragraphs verbatim
from the clips. We discovered it only because the facts he lifted
turned out to be wrong, even though it had been written by a good
reporter. I don’t know how much of that goes on. As for our guidelines,
there are none.”

Some editors
argue that a reporter may borrow an aptly worded paragraph, perhaps
more, from an old story from his own newspaper.

A newspaper
may have a good reason for permitting reporters to use information
from the clips verbatim. Perhaps the paper has reduced a difficult
concept (the Consumer Price Index) to a clear formula, or prefers
to use the same paragraph of background for a running story.

In most cases,
the writer should assimilate information from the clips and rewrite
or let the narrative suggest that material derives from earlier
accounts.

Such care
becomes essential in an age when technology makes the mining of
the clips easier — kidnapping by computer. The New York
Times
, for example, now has a split-screen capability on terminals,
which can display a new story on the left and a story retrieved
from the clips on the right. “Retrieved information,” said a recent
story in presstime, “can be inserted electronically into
the working story.”

ABUSING
THE WIRES.
Editors tell of wire stories that appear, almost
word for word, under the bylines of local writers. The reverse can
happen when reporters from the AP or UPI do not rephrase and summarize
adequately the stories of local reporters.

Many newspaper
stories combine original reporting with information compiled from
news services. Such collaboration has a long history and is essential
to daily journalism. But it can be done in unscrupulous ways.

Editors can
help create a sense of source for the reader by clearly labeling
when wire copy has been used in a staff story. This can be done
with a tag line or in the text.

The AP bylaws
give the wire service the right to use “spot” news stories from
member newspapers as opposed to “enterprise” pieces. According to
Louis D. Boccardi, AP vice president and executive editor, AP writers
are expected to rewrite stories, although it is accepted that direct
quotations will reappear word for word.

“I learned
to rewrite everything,” says Melvin Mencher, professor at the Columbia
Graduate School of Journalism, and a former United Press staffer.
“We were told to rewrite and I took that seriously. It had some
moral compulsion. But we live in a different age, the age as media
star. It’s me, me, me the writer. Attribution comes awfully hard
to that mindset.”

LIFTING
FROM OTHER NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES.
Broadcast media — from
local radio to network television magazine shows — steal from
newspapers without attribution in order to preserve the myth of
exclusivity.

But newspapers
cannot complain. They feast on each other like sharks, a banquet
that has gone on for years. Donald Murray, professor of English
at the University of New Hampshire and newspaper writing coach,
remembers his days as a rewrite man for the Boston Herald
in the early 1950s. Every day he was tossed clips from all the competing
newspapers in town. “It was nothing to turn out 50 quick run-throughs,”
he says. “Whatever scholarly ideas I had about plagiarism went by
the board.”

His experience
on the police beat also tempered his idealism. “The copy desk would
put into my story details from competing editions that I knew weren’t
true,” Murray recalls. “One reporter in town would always find pink
panties at a crime scene, even when the cops couldn’t. The desk
would always put the damn panties in my story.”

Even today
reporters loot and pillage other newspapers and magazines, using
quotations and information without attribution or verification.
“A badly trained reporter develops instincts and reactions that
are immoral and dangerous for his career,” says Mencher. “He’s at
a small paper somewhere. They’re understaffed. He has to write about
Sugar Ray Leonard. So he steals from Sports Illustrated.

LOOTING
PRESS RELEASES.
When I was film critic for the St. Petersburg
Times,
I received for each new film a press packet of canned
feature stories with quotes from actors and directors. It was an
open invitation to plagiarism.

Each day,
newspapers receive dozens of releases. Responsible editors permit
staff writers to work these over, to elaborate on them and check
them for accuracy.

A different
type of journalism was practiced last year at the Trenton Times,
where a reporter was fired his first day on the job. “His offense,”
according to The Wall Street Journal, “was not writing up
a news announcement exactly as a company had submitted it.” The
editors had ordered the press release run without a change to protect
a big advertiser. The competing paper, the Trentonian, published
the release without alteration.

“Apparently
it’s all right to plagiarize from press releases,” says Don Murray.
“You see university press releases published everywhere, word for
word.”

Perhaps newspapers
should add a tag line to stories taken exclusively from press releases.
It could read “released from….” If an editor is ashamed to do
that, he or she should make sure the story contains additional reporting,
verification and rewording.

HIDING
COLLABORATION IN THE CLOSET.
When a number of writers collaborate
on a project, care should be taken to preserve the integrity of
the byline. Did the person named write most of the story? Are the
contributions of others noted at the bottom?

Billie Bledsoe,
food editor of the San Antonio Express, recently exposed
a case of veiled collaboration involving the famous food critic
James Beard, whose work is distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.
Bledsoe wrote that Beard “has admitted falsifying a column about
two meals he claimed to have eaten in San Antonio on September 20.”
The column fooled the reader into thinking that Beard had attended
the events. Beard admitted to Bledsoe that he based his review on
notes by an assistant.

Professor
Murray says some of his college students get hired as stringers,
perhaps to cover local basketball games. According to Murray, the
work of his students sometimes appears under the bylines of staff
writers.

CRIBBING
FROM THE BOOKS, SCHOLARSHIP, AND RESEARCH OF OTHERS.
Reporters
have the same responsibility as scholars to attribute work derived
from the research of others. The difference is that journalists
have not inherited the attributive scaffolding that hangs, sometimes
clumsily, on the work of scholars. Nor do they want readers distracted
by ibids or lengthy parentheses.

Good advice
comes from William Rivers and Shelley Smolkin in their book Free-
Lancers and Staff Writers
: “It is unnecessary, of course, for
the writer to try to trace down the origins of every captivating
phrase…. It is not at all absurd, however, to give credit for
a sentence. One worth using should be clothed in quotation marks
and attributed to its author. Not…with the footnoting that is
common in scholarly journals — but with a smooth note in the
text.”

Design consultant
and journalism professor Mario Garcia is the author of Contemporary
Newspaper Design
. He has seen his work used time and again without
proper credit. “When editors do a graphics stylebook for in-house
consumption,” says Garcia, “they will take huge sections of my book
without any mention of my name. That hurts.”

The Archdeacon
case falls in the category of unattributed research. He could have
probably spared himself much grief by simply dropping Jerry Bledsoe’s
name into the text.

RECYCLING
YOUR OLD STORIES.
A low-grade ethical problem is the borrowing
by a writer of his own work. Even Ann Landers has been caught and
criticized for passing off old work as new. As writers move from
newspaper to newspaper, they take files of their stories with them
and are not above copying themselves when pressed. Such exhumation
should be done with the permission of the newspaper in which the
story first appeared and with a note of explanation to the reader.

These questions
are not designed to put obstacles in the writer’s path or to confuse
minor abuses with major ones. But misdemeanors can lead to felonies,
and an ethically loose atmosphere fosters sloppy work and journalistic
malpractice.

While much
confusion tangles the issue of plagiarism, some possible paths can
be cut through the thicket.

Journalism
textbooks and newspaper stylebooks should take up the issue and
suggest guidelines for writers. Plagiarism, including the abuses
of faculty members, such as ghostwriting of textbooks and kidnapping
by professors of the work of graduate assistants, should be discussed
in college classrooms. Students should be told — and in writing — what
is expected of them.

If I were
a city editor, I would call my staff together to talk about plagiarism
in all its manifestations and to spell out these reasons for tightening
standards:

  1. Plagiarism
    is a form of deception.
  2. Plagiarism
    is a violation of language. Linguists, like Noam Chomsky, emphasize
    the essential creativity of all language. Almost every sentence
    is unique. If you don’t believe that, apply this test: Count all
    the sentences in all the stories in The New York Times
    for any given year. How many are identical? Plagiarism is a crime
    against the nature of language.
  3. Plagiarism
    is a substitute for reporting. A reporter who assumes the accuracy
    of information in the clips or in wire stories or in textbooks
    is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Of course, reporters consider
    the source of information and are always fighting the clock. But
    to the extent that they depend upon the work and words of others,
    they distance themselves from events and people and create an
    environment for inaccuracy.
    Important
    mistakes, especially when they turn up in usually reliable sources
    of information, become fossilized in the clips. “What you get,”
    says Mel Mencher, “is this installation of inaccuracy in the record.”
  4. Plagiarism
    is a substitute for thinking. “Writing is discovery,” says Donald
    Fry, professor of English at the State University of New York,
    Stony Brook. “Plagiarism is secondhand thinking.”
  5. Plagiarism
    poisons the relationship between writer and reader. “What readers
    want to believe,” says Fry, “is that they’re listening to a real
    voice conveying his own thought.”

Because plagiarism
is hard to detect, some editors feel they must fire those who practice
it. Gene Patterson fired his offending artist “to send a clear message
to the staff.”

Other editors
have taken milder measures hoping to rehabilitate the writer, permitting
him to work his way back to respectability. This has happened, by
all accounts, in Charlotte and Louisville.

There is no
agreement on how journalism students should be punished. Some universities
view expulsion as the only way to raise standards. Expulsion is
what happened to a student at Columbia who “borrowed copiously”
from Newsweek in his master’s thesis.

Others favor
less severe punishment. “Plagiarism can be an opportunity to teach,”
says Neale Copple, dean of journalism at the University of Nebraska.
“You make sure the kid never does it again. You don’t brand him
for life. You just make it a learning experience for everybody.”

Free-lance
scoundrels can ply their trade through plagiarism. Newspaper and
magazine editors who often do not know personally the freelance
writers they deal with should watch out for plagiarists. Free-lancers
can more easily escape detection and punishment than staff writers.
When a malefactor is exposed, his name should be circulated privately
or through trade journals.

This was done
in Liaison magazine, a journal for evangelical religious
publishers. Last summer the journal printed a notice exposing a
writer who was selling plagiarized articles, written under different
names, to several religious publications. The notice in Liaison
saved Perspective magazine from publishing a plagiarized
article submitted by that writer. Liaison promised to “spread
the word on the cheaters in the trade.”

Tom Archdeacon
admits that his plagiarism of Jerry Bledsoe was a failure of technique.
He failed to distinguish in his notes between his own words and
the words of another. If bad work habits lead the writer astray,
he is as responsible for the result of his actions as the drunk
driver.

Careful work
habits help the writer walk a straight line. Don Murray suggests
that the first draft be written without notes. “I teach my students
not to be a secretary to their notes,” he says. “Let it flow. Put
all those notes aside. You can always go back to them.”

Jacques Barzun
and Henry F. Graff, in The Modern Researcher, suggest that
all researchers rewrite material into their notes rather than copy
them verbatim. This practice has three beneficial effects: “You
have made an effort of thought which has imprinted the information
on your mind; you have practiced the art of writing by making a
paraphrase; and you have at the same time taken a step toward your
first draft, for here and now these are your words, not a
piece of plagiarism…. “

In the most
serious cases, plagiarism is a human problem rather than a technical
one. It is practiced by people under duress, people who act without
grace under pressure. Editors need to be sensitive to those pressures.

Surely the
saddest case was that of Emily Ann Fisher, a reporter/intern at
The Washington Post who was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of
Harvard. In July of 1973, she inserted dialogue from Catcher
in the Rye
into a feature story she had written for the Post.
She was fired. Friends say she was a brilliant, deeply troubled
woman who had a photographic memory. No one is sure how intentional
her act was or what emotional pressures led her to borrow from Salinger.
But she later took her life.

Ultimately,
it is the plagiarist who suffers most from plagiarism. This self-inflicted
pain was well expressed by a veteran reporter from the St. Petersburg
Times
, who in July of 1979 kidnapped about one-third of a magazine
article on credit cards from Changing Times. On the day of
her resignation, she pinned a brave letter to the newsroom bulletin
board: “Twelve years of dedicated journalism down the drain because
of a stupid mistake,” she wrote. “I am writing this public explanation
for a selfish reason. It will be easier for me to live with myself
knowing that the truth is known. But I hope my mistake will serve
as a lesson to others. I have let the Times down. I have
let myself down. But most of all, I have let the profession down.
And for that I am truly sorry.”

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