October 10, 2012 / by Katrina M Mendolera

Over the last year, several cases of plagiarism and fabrication may give some reason to speculate whether this is a growing trend.

Just recently, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente was accused of copying a sentence from the Ottawa Citizen in a 2009 column, but noted it was merely a careless mistake. In August, Time magazine and CNN suspended writer and television host Fareed Zakaria after plagiarizing a New Yorker article that ran in Time. Further back in January, The Guardian reported that Independent journalist Johann Hari, who has since resigned, used other writers’ work in his own writing without appropriate attribution.

Although all plagiarism is considered a serious transgression, Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker, and formerly a blogger at Wired.com, admitted to fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan in his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” resulting in his resignation from the magazine. Hired by Wired.com, Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University and a science journalist, performed an analysis of Lehrer’s previous work and found evidence of rampant plagiarism, recycled use of material and factual inaccuracies.

Meanwhile, plagiarism has also plagued college newspapers. Poynter.org reported that a writer from Penn State’s The Daily Collegian was found to have been plagiarizing and fabricating quotes, while students writers from the Columbia Daily Spectator and Arizona State University’s State Press were also recently caught plagiarizing. Dr. Stephen Ward, director of the center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and endowed chair in the school of Journalism and Mass Communications, offered inVocus several insights on this apparent rash of plagiarism:

Q: This summer there were at least four journalists found to have plagiarized or completely fabricated material. Do you think this is a growing trend?

Stephen Ward (SW): It appears to be a trend because such violations get widespread publicity on the many forms of media available today. But I have no studies that show me whether it is a growing trend, quantitatively. However, regardless of the issue of quantity, any such trend is worrisome because it erodes the public’s already weak trust in journalists. All journalists get tarred by the same brush, and when journalists seek to defend their actions, legitimately, or fight for better access to information, and so on, the lack of public trust often causes such appeals to fall on deaf ears. In other words, bad journalism undermines good journalism.

Q: Do you think there is an actual increase in the number of people fabricating material, or is it just easier to catch them at it?

SW: There are actually two related factors going on here: Yes, it is easier to catch, but there are also more opportunities for journalists to “fake” it or plagiarize it. It amounts to a sort of “arms race” between technology that makes stealing other people’s work inviting (and so easy) and a technology that catches the people who use the technology. One additional and new factor is that the online culture tends to be much more tolerant, or laissez-faire, about sharing and using other people’s material. Some young people, engrossed in that culture, are actually surprised when told how strict the rules in newsrooms on plagiarism really are … that it is not a cut-and-paste world in many newsrooms.

Q: Which is worse, plagiarizing or fabrication?

SW: Both are equally wrong. They belong to those types of action that are clearly ethically wrong. In fact, ethically, there isn’t must to discuss. Such actions are wrong, period, and the real questions for newsrooms are: how to prevent it, why it is happening, and what to do about it, when it happens? Under “why it is happening,” newsrooms also have to look to “systemic” reasons for individual’s acting wrongly. This is not to defend such individuals. But we need to also look at the pressure inside newsrooms to be the first on a story, to scoop the competition, to make fascinating writings and great stories the measure of advancement for young journalists and so on. Therefore, newsrooms have a responsibility not only to make public and “punish” offenders; they have a responsibility to lay down clear guidelines and expectations that assure writers that they must not compromise the truth or to steal people’s work – that this is not the culture of this newsroom. Guidelines must be clear as to when one needs to reference an idea, when to give credit (e.g. do we need to credit wire service material?), and so on. Finally, editors need to have a system for detecting (or becoming suspicious about) people who may be plagiarizing. Past offenders have often had an early history of sloppy mistakes and overlooking references to other people’s material for some time … there are things that happen that should cause the proverbial nose of the editor(s) to twitch (a story that seems to be too good to be true?) investigate. Also, newsrooms can randomly check reporter’s copy for accuracy and sourcing, etc.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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