February 19, 2010
/ by Katrina M Mendolera
A copy and paste world
In the last month, two journalists from prestigious news organizations have resigned from their respective publications. Their crime was what both men have referred to in different reports as “inadvertent plagiarism.”
The most recent offense was just last week when New York Times business reporter Zachary Kouwe was accused of lifting content from an article the Wall Street Journal had posted only hours before and copying it in The Times’ DealBook blog. According to the New York Observer, The Times reexamined Kouwe’s past work and found multiple examples of content that had also been copied. “I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” Kouwe told the Observer. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What was I thinking?’”
Only two weeks prior, Daily Beast reporter Gerald Posner had been caught in the same sort of predicament, except it was the Miami Herald he had copied. In an interview with Slate, he said he didn’t even remember having ever read the Miami Herald story. In his own blog, he explained he was used to working at the slower pace of book writing and traditional deadlines. “Speed, the desire for a scoop, the natural inclination to want to break news on a developing story of national importance, made me shortcut my own rigorous standards,” Posner wrote.
Cases of inadvertent or accidental plagiarism have surfaced several times in the last year. Indeed, even veteran journalist Maureen Dowd was shown to be fallible in a New York Times column last May when she was accused of lifting a paragraph from Talking Points Memo. Plagiarism may be an age-old crime, but it’s possible that, like Posner said, the speed of the Web is contributing to more instances of accidental plagiarism.
“‘Too much hurry’ is the name of the game now, and even professionally-managed blogs are often subject to errors, sloppiness, and ethical lapses,” said Bill Reader, assistant professor of journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, in an e-mail interview. Mistakes are easier to make when a journalist is on a deadline all day long, he noted. The process of writing itself even lends to unintentional content stealing, punishable by disgrace and dismissal. “It’s the curse of the inverted pyramid – give a dozen students the same police report to write up as a brief, and you’ll get three or four nearly identical leads. Have three different writers contribute to one story, and there is really no way to tell whose information is whose. That’s just a function of the work; you can only prepare hamburgers so many different ways, you know.”
Like a recent New York Observer reader who attributed Kouwe’s plagiarism to “laziness and arrogance,” some may scoff at the concept of inadvertent content copying. But in a Newsweek article last year, writer Russ Juskalian delved into a phenomenon called “cryptomnesia” – the “act of copying without realizing it.” At the time, cryptomnesia researcher and professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia Richard L. Marsh weighed in on the issue. “When people engage in creative activity, they are so involved in generating or coming up with something new or novel that they fail to protect against what they previously experienced,” he told Newsweek.
While it’s hard to say whether these offenders are telling the truth, Reader said he believes that Kouwe’s explanation is believable. If they are to be trusted then, Robert Jensen, a professor of media ethics at the University of Texas at Austin, said fault can then be attributed to the structural features of contemporary media and society. In today’s culture, there is a great pressure to produce more work, more quickly, “which is distinctive of a hyper competitive environment,” he said. Meanwhile, technology makes borrowing content not only easier, but faster. “The act of plagiarism hasn’t changed, but the ease with which one can do it has increased,” he said. Despite this, Jensen said that while there are probably more instances of plagiarism in today’s digital world, it likely goes undetected.
If the act of plagiarism is committed knowingly, it is then that individual’s “moral failing,” noted Jensen. But it’s a copy and paste world where even the unwitting can become offenders. Reader, who teaches media ethics, believes that Kouwe’s resignation was extreme. “I think the big plagiarism/fabrication scandals from earlier in the decade – at the New York Times, obviously Jayson Blair – have made editors hyper-sensitive to the issue,” he said. “Fabrication and publishing factual errors are so, so much more damaging than what happened here. In fact, publishing false information is by far a more serious problem today, I believe, than plagiarism, because the damage done is to the stakeholders in the story, rather than just the ego of the journalists and their editors.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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