March 29, 2012

What are the odds that two male journalists, in senior roles at newspapers in two different countries, both will be serial plagiarists of humor columns?

Even more unlikely, what are the odds they would be unmasked for their offenses within a few weeks of each other?

We’re experiencing an extraordinary moment in journalistic plagiarism, thanks to the recent unmasking of Jon Flatland and Steve Jeffrey as serial plagiarists. (The latter initially denied the charge, but the evidence is overwhelming. He resigned from the paper Tuesday.)

There are a string of coincidences about the timing and nature of their offenses. Perhaps these similarities are clues that help us understand the characteristics of at least one breed of plagiarist:

  1. They both worked at publications that have a minimal Web presence. The focus is on print.
  2. They both worked at small, community publications that do not attract national or state attention. (As a contributing factor to this, see #1.)
  3. Both were in positions of leadership during their offenses.

Do these traits transcend Flatland and Jeffrey? It’s tough to say.

There of course have been plagiarists at Web-only publications and at large national and international publications. And plenty of younger reporters have been caught stealing.

That said, there’s something about Flatland and Jeffrey that strikes me as a type. Their transgressions brought to mind the work of Mark Williams, the serial plagiarist writer for the Bulletin, a small weekly in Montgomery County, Texas. After he was exposed by Jody Rosen of Slate, the paper was shut down.

I also thought of Cooks Source, the small food and recipe publication that was shuttered after it was outed for rampant copyright infringement. The editor thought that any content online was hers to take as she saw fit. The same was true with Reader Magazine in California.

These examples all point to one type of plagiarist.

Is it useful — and ethical — to use previous incidents to create profiles of plagiarists? I think it may be. Looking back at serial plagiarists, some offenders share characteristics and tendencies.

In an attempt to spot patterns, and with a tip of the hat to Matt Thompson, here are the four types of serial plagiarists in journalism.

The Early Bird

Examples: Mark MitchellHailey Mac Arthur

Attributes: Student journalists/journalism students who adopt plagiarism as part of their workflow. Mitchell was a serial plagiarist at his student paper, while Mac Arthur was a student who plagiarized during a summer internship at The Gazette in Colorado Springs. In a similar incident last year, an unnamed columnist for the Technician at North Carolina State University plagiarized all 10 columns he wrote for the paper. They start early, they plagiarize often.

Commentary: It’s possible these early-start plagiarists genuinely misunderstand proper attribution and ethics. Not an excuse, but a consideration. If so, they could share this trait with the much older Dinosaur (see below).

The Keener

Examples: Kendra MarrJayson Blair

Attributes: Young, ambitious reporters who use plagiarism to cope with a heavy workload and/or complicated subject matter. It’s also possible, as in the case of Jayson Blair, that there were issues with their work prior to hitting the big time.

Commentary: The reaction to this type of plagiarist can vary widely. In Marr’s case, there was an element of compassion among her editors at Politico. The editor’s note announcing her resignation showed that the top editors maintained affection for her and her work: “Marr is a friend and colleague who has produced much outstanding work here and elsewhere.” Of course, that wasn’t the case with Blair, whose offenses were far worse, more frequent, and also included fabrication.

This type of plagiarist is perhaps the most disconcerting because it leads us to a difficult question: Is their plagiarism caused by the demands of Web-speed journalism? A lack of proper education about attribution and sourcing? Or are some destined for malfeasance, regardless of their chosen career path? In other words, are these young plagiarists born or created?

The Blank Slate

Examples: Hiroshi Kobayashi, Johann Hari, Steven King

Attributes: Opinion writers who lack original ideas at the start or turn to plagiarism when they run out of material. (There is admittedly some overlap here with the Dinosaur, below.) They take ideas and passages from elsewhere and pass them off as their own. That was the case with Kobayashi, who “confessed to copying at least 15 editorials from other papers when he could no longer think what to write for his paper.”

Commentary: Oh, the irony that someone being paid for the value and originality of his opinions is proffering the words and ideas of others. Kobayashi’s admission that he ran out of ideas is not the kind of blunt explanation we’re used to hearing. After he resigned over his plagiarism, King, a former political adviser in Northern Ireland, offered this list of events as an excuse: “the pressure of work; a once fantastically happy marriage almost shattered by mental illness; the death of a partner which is extremely difficult to accept.” Yet there are contributing factors in all kinds of wrongdoing. The Blank Slate steals instead of doing the work.

The Dinosaur

Examples: Jon FlatlandSteve Jeffrey

Attributes: Old-school print journalists who don’t seem to understand the Web and how it makes it easy to discover their trail of lifted words. They tend to work at smaller community newspapers without a strong Web presence. Their thefts are often as brazen as they are frequent. They’ve probably been doing it for years.

Commentary: In the case of Jeffrey, he seemed to profess a misunderstanding of the ethics of attribution and copyright, telling the Calgary Herald, “I did use articles for inspiration, but thought that I had changed the content enough to comply.”

All serial plagiarism, regardless of the type, is a serious concern. But not all have an equal future in journalism. Blank Slates comprise a minority of journalists due to their focus on opinion writing. Dinosaurs will die out.

Of particular concern are Early Birds and Keeners. These young, hard-driving plagiarists represent the future of journalistic theft. Journalism schools and newsrooms must find better ways to identify plagiarists early and set them on the right path before they wreak disaster in newsrooms.

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Craig Silverman ( is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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