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.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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