Saturday, May 7

Original Thoughts on Plagiarism

The Post's Howard Kurtzman:
Has journalism become an ethical cesspool, or just been forced to adopt greater standards of cleanliness? In the past month alone, four reporters for major newspapers have been ousted, and a columnist was suspended, for ethical missteps. The drip-drip-drip of disclosures about sloppiness, fabrication and plagiarism have further eroded the media's reputation, leading to a one-strike-and-you're-out policy at many outlets.

And some follow-up reporting from Kurtz:

A USA Today Pentagon correspondent, Tom Squitieri, resigned under pressure yesterday after the paper learned he had lifted quotes from another newspaper for a front-page story and used several other quotes, without attributing them to other publications, that were cut during editing. . . . "This is a clear violation of our sources and attribution policy, and when that happens, a reporter has to leave the paper," Editor Ken Paulson said. "When you see a pattern of misuse of quotes, you have to take steps.

And this from the Boston Herald:

The Christian Science Monitor has "banished" a regular contributor for two years in a flap over alleged plagiarism. The Hub paper also published an editor's note, explaining that the article bore too many similarities to one in an online journal, and pulled it from its own Web site. It is a rare lapse by the newspaper, which is owned by the Church of Christ, Scientist, and prides itself on the highest ethics. Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson said he could recall only one other example of alleged plagiarism at the newspaper, and that was "about four years ago." It was on April 18 that the paper published the article, "Can mutual funds that hedge give you an edge?" by freelance writer Jonathan P. Decker. Days later editors got calls from financial journal, noting that four paragraphs in the Monitor piece were remarkably similar to those in a similar article by its own writer, Gregg Greenberg.

A professor friend of mine uses the Turn It In to catch students at this sort of thing. With Google and Gutenberg and the Internet Archive setting out to make every utterance ever committed to print or Web machine-searchable, this could easily turn into a weapon in the war over the soul of the press. "Similarity" is a slippery concept, unlike the precision of "checksum" used to check the integrity of files in a computer system. George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" lost a plagiarism suit to a doo-wop song called "She's So Fine," by the Rondanelles or Shamalamadelles or something. Just imagine if Lou Reed set out to claim ownership over the chord progress of "Sweet Jane." Bob Marley's estate might be in trouble over "No Woman No Cry," along with a lot of other people. There would be only one three-chord rave-up left in the world. Might as well be "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, I guess, though I'd miss "Louie Louie."

I'm not saying lifting quotes gathered by the opposition without attribution is not a sin, but so much of what journalists do is churn out three-chord songs that all sound like the chorus of the Ramone's "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World." We share a huge depository of dead metaphors, cliches, stock phrases, stock leads, story templates, headline-friendly words like "mull" and "slay" and all sorts of tired shtick. I'll bet you could build a statistically convincing case that all weather reports and crime blotters are written by the same guy, who could sue all the rest of us and live like a king for the rest of his life.

That is not even to mention the mighty river of press releases out there whose fondest ambition is to get their words into your story under the imprimatur of your "independence." The White House knows very well how to play that game, as we know.

In a past life, I studied oral traditions, like the cordel tradition of topical poetry in northeastern Brazil. When a cordel poet dies, the others will often buy the man's work from his widow to help support her, then begin to reproduce and freely adapt it as their own. But there's also a tradition of paying homage to the people you owe your debt to, like Baden Powell's Samba de Bencao or Chico Buarque's Paratodos. My old Western Civ prof used to scare the hell out of every incoming freshman class by thundering this as the first utterance of his first lecture: "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, YOU WILL NEVER HAVE AN ORIGINAL THOUGHT IN YOUR LIFE."

The real ethical imperative behind attribution and not claiming someone else's work as your own has less to do with allocating credit where credit is due--the content as commodity model--than with enabling the reader to know how you put the thing together so they can go back and recreate the steps you took themselves. You will inevitably miss or skew something in your haste, with your editor yelling at you to get the lead out, but if you at least provide the metadata, the audit trail, you have set the public on the trail to discovering the whole story, if they care to pursue it.

It's just like the scientific method: It's worth nothing if the results can't be reproduced by someone else. Of course, there are folks out there who believe the Grand Canyon was put there as a nice landscape gardening flourish by the Almighty some six to ten thousand years ago, and are fighting tooth and nail to get this claptrap into the public school curriculum. What spiritual arrogance! Every Christian soldier armored with the infallibility of the pope. Where's the humility? Where's halving your cloak with your sword to share it with a naked beggar?

This has been a hangover rant that digressed as the coffee kicked in. You can quote me on that.


Blogger venus de kilo said...

My coffee hasn't really kicked in yet, but somewhere - either in print or on the radio - sometime - in the last year, perhaps? - there was a story about chord progression and "plagiarism." I think it was probably The New Yorker, my source for just about all social conversation.

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