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Published:December 15th, 2006 14:31 EST
Attribution, Plagiarism and Lies - Part 1 - Hot Copy #12A

Attribution, Plagiarism and Lies - Part 1 - Hot Copy #12A

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

This is Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook.

The word plagiarism carries a lot of baggage. It should be thought about in the larger context of fraud. For example, if I copy passages from a book I admire and use them in my own book, that`s plagiarism. But if I use a short passage here and there, and I get permission to do so from the book`s publisher and its author, and I name the book and the author, that`s attribution, and it`s proper.

Now if I have a good imagination and I write about people who never lived and things that never happened, well, that`s fiction. As long as I did the writing, all the writing. But if I stole pieces of the story from somebody else`s book, published or not, then I`m a plagiarist.

But what if I write an autobiography, my life`s story, and I include things that never happened? Maybe I give myself a medal I don`t deserve or call myself a reformed hoodlum, when actually I`m a scaredy-cat and a choir boy? Well, that`s fraud. I cooked it up and served it as my own.  I made money by fooling people, by lying.

All of this is pretty clear-cut. But it can get dicier. Suppose I write a wrap-up story about some controversy and I use previous wire reports. Well, it`s done all the time, but the issue is how it`s done. For example, did I identify those wire stories? Did I say who wrote them and when they were published? Or did I just treat them as received information, background or context to be taken for granted? If I did that, I did wrong. Maybe I added new information, maybe I put the story in a brand-new and more understandable context, but I was wrong not to say where the relevant information came from.

And that brings us to the question of what`s relevant. The clearest answer in journalism is everything. But over time, as a running story plays out, certain parts of it come to be accepted as reliably received information. They`re taken for granted. It`s usually not plagiarism because it has been completely rewritten. But at what point did it become reliable? Is it reliable because The Boston Globe reported it and you picked up a piece of it for The Providence Journal and told your readers you got it from The Globe? The answer is no. You might be willing to assume that Boston got a name right or the terms of an arrest or the time, and you might not have time to check such things out with a deadline breathing down on you, but it gets pretty ticklish if the Boston writer starts using words like, it is believed " or police sources say " or a neighbor says the suspect has a long criminal record. "

Here`s another consideration.  If The Boston Globe is saying it, it`s likely to leave you a bit more confident than if a 22-year-old rookie is writing it for a local weekly.

These issues are more important today than they were twenty years ago, because the polls show that the public doesn`t trust the press. Republicans think it leans to the left. Democrats think it leans to the right. And independents just think it has an agenda. We can talk about that later. Right now it`s important to remember the press doesn`t need any more knocks against it than it already suffers.

The problem is not merely one for writers. Cost-cutters are browbeating newspapers to increase shareholder profits. This means news staffs are being cut back, leaving fewer editors to check and rewrite stories, and leaving reporters less time to research stories.

The same is true in the book publishing industry. We are publishing more books than ever before, but many publishers don`t have adequate editorial staffs to vet copy for accuracy, plausibility, style, and just plain truthfulness.

The problem of received information has been magnified tenfold by the Internet. Very few web sites offer us the assurance of an established newspaper that their content has been read carefully by one or two well trained and deeply informed copy editors. But the truth, as always, is more complex. A great deal of received information has always gotten into news reports, and it passes for the truth or a reasonable facsimile until issues arise that cast it in a new light.

A good example is the Coast Guard`s refitting of its capital ships. Our received information for several years has been that our coastal security is being expensively improved by this program. But on December 9, in the off-lead position on the front page, The New York Times broke an investigative report saying the program has been bungled by the Coast Guard, the ships have structural defects, and millions in taxpayer dollars have been wasted. Goodbye received background information. From here on in, the story must be reported in an entirely new context.

Context and background change again and again. But the old stories remain in the archives and the danger persists over time that old and bad information will be reintroduced into a new story. That danger worsens when there are no knowledgeable copy editors or too few of them.

One of the problems is that our idea of news has degraded. We now regard it as content. The writers are content providers. Content is not what the First Amendment envisioned as the information a free society needs to remain free. When we start thinking of news as stuffer material we lose sight of our obligation to verify it and cite the sources. It no longer matters. It`s so ephemeral nobody will notice if it`s baloney. In a content culture plagiarism and fraud are more likely.

As long as media owners pursue a cost-cutting business model instead of an investment-in-the-future model, fraud and plagiarism will increasingly beset the news and information industry. Part of the problem is public policy. Government regulators, seeking to protect shareholders from abuse, have heightened pressure on corporations to reward shareholders in the short term. American business on the whole has opted for cost-cutting rather than finding ways to make more money. As a result cost-cutters are more sought after than innovative visionaries.

It used to be, it still ought to be, standard practice to attribute information to the publication or news service that originally provided it. But I notice this practice is breaking down. In fact, some of the contributors to The Student Operated Press have on occasion submitted stories with information from other published sources with no attribution. This makes for easier-to-write stories, but it`s bad journalism. There are quite a few reasons why it`s bad. Foremost among them is that if you didn`t discover the information on your own, you should ethically give credit to those who did. But another good reason is that the information might not be correct, so you don`t want to make it your own unless you verified it yourself. On the other hand, the very fact that somebody reported it is news itself. There is a big difference between a story that says Compiled From Wire Sources and a story in which you use those sources but fail to attribute them. It`s a sleazy practice, and it leads to the kind of environment in which plagiarism and fraud thrive.

Let`s look at the difference between plagiarism and fraud. If I concoct a story out of whole cloth, that`s fraud. If I lift passages from somebody else`s story or book and fail to say so, that`s plagiarism. It`s okay to quote, to a limited degree, but you have to attribute the quote and put it in quotes, or paraphrase the quote and still attribute it.

In theory there really isn`t any background that you can use as context and be a hundred percent worry-free about it. Almost any story is subject to revisiting. We take as gospel what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported about the Watergate scandal, unless of course The Washington Post, their newspaper, corrected itself. But it`s always possible, although as time passes increasingly unlikely, that some fact, some quote, some reportorial sequence of events will be challenged, perhaps by a historian. Nothing is really sacrosanct, nor should it be. But it is difficult for a student journalist to see how any stories get written under the circumstances. I mean, if you have to hem and haw and hedge so much, how can you write an elegant Pulitzer Prize winner? That`s a loaded question, of course. First of all, you don`t try every day to write a Pulitzer winner. It just happens, sometimes. The other part of this admittedly rhetorical question is more difficult to address, the part about the hemming and hawing and hedging. It`s part of the craft--you must learn to hedge as gracefully as possible. But your primary purpose is to inform readers, not to impress them with your writing skill. Some of you will be better writers than reporters at the outset. Some will be better reporters. Some may never be great writers, but you can still aspire to be great reporters.

I`ll continue our conversation about plagiarism and fraud next time.

This is Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you`re interested in more of what I have to say, please visit me at www.delmarbrook.com.