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Published:January 21st, 2010 22:38 EST

Attribution, Plagiarism and Lies - Part 2 - Hot Copy #12B

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Attribution, plagiarism and fraud Part 2 

This is "Hot Copy" and I`m Del Marbrook

Problems of attribution, plagiarism and fraud are directly related to the state of the news business, indeed the state of publishing in general. When cost-cutting is the main objective management, the end product suffers, no matter what the cost-cutters claim. Their efficiencies are in behalf of profit-takers, not readers. My guess is that the current shortsighted business model--cutting costs to maximize shareholder profit--will eventually give way to a more sane and visionary business model that calls for investment and innovation. But it won`t happen soon, and in the meantime young journalists are entering a field that has been seriously compromised by cost considerations.

Technology is trying to come to the rescue. For example,  a gentleman named Mark McCrohon has dveloped a plgiarism detection tool called DOC Cop.  (We`ll embed his web site`s URL in the online version of this discussion).  DOC Cop (http://www.doccop.com ) doesn`t take over the ownership or copyright of the material it`s examing, it just  retains it long enough to investigate  and report.

Mr. McCrohon says his technology  can process Homer`s Odyssey against James Joyce`s Ulysses within twenty minutes. Anyone who  has read either will recognize that that`s impressive. But technology isn`t going to solve the problem all by itself. It will still take a high degree of human literacy and, of course, integrity.  When computers first entered the field of journalism "I`m old to remember how difficult it was for some of us to give up our typewriters and teletypes and learn how to word-process "a subconscious feeling pervaded newsrooms among the younger journalists that you could somehow punch inferior material intoa computer and it would come out magically transformed into first-rate copy. It was kind of hard disabuse some people of this notion until someone came up with the catchy warning: Garbage in, garbage out.

Google and Yahoo and some of the other search engines  are fairly handy in helping to detect plagiarism, too. You just type in some beautiful phrase or passage that has arrested your attention and then watch what happens. It may turn up in half a dozen places, and that will be your tip-off that you better investigate further.

It`s not good journalism to blink at any problem, and it`s certainly not good journalism to blink at this one, however much we might wish it weren`t so. One thing young journalists can do is take careful inventory of their own aspirations. They can and should look carefully at their role, that is, the role they hope to play, in journalism.

I think too many reporters these days aspire to be pundits, columnists. I think that`s because we have probably over-emphasized the importance of columnists. Television is partly responsible for that. In the 1950s and 60s the television people realized that newspaper columnists would make interesting guests. So they turned them into celebrities, and the celebrity in some cases has gone to their heads, where it has ever since stuck.

So now everybody wants to be Bob Woodward or Maureen Dowd. That`s okay. There`s no changing you in your heart of hearts, if that`s where you want to be, but please try to remember your job is to inform people, not impress them with your writing or your ideas. And please try to remember that until you have studied issues a great deal, your ideas are not worth very much. I`ve studied a lot of things for a long time, and my ideas are not worth very much, nor are they likely to be soon.

But there is a caveat, and there always is. Some columnists are economists, meaning they have not only studied how to write and report, they have also studied economics. Some columnists, depending on where their work appears, are also mathematicians or forensic accountants. In this case, what they say has a great deal of weight. That`s one reason I urge young journalists to broaden their studies. Just imagine a young journalist who knows how to write and has also studied forensic accounting. He or she would be a holy terror. Politicians and executives alike would quake in their boots at the mere mention of the reporter`s name. And when they hear who is in the waiting room, they`ll hide everything in sight. It would be like having a secret weapon in your pocket.

When you`re young the old hands in the newsroom are watching you for signs of unethical practice. They`re not so much looking to play gotcha. Mostly they`re just wondering whether you have the same ethical sensibility that they themselves have adhered to over the years. So, if you show signs of being careless about attribution, if some of your copy seems somehow suspect to a veteran, even if he or she can`t smoke out the problem, your new career could be in danger. You might even be let go, as they euphemistically call being fired, without being told that somebody was worried about your ethics. I know, because I`ve done a lot of hiring, and, alas, a little firing too.

Sometimes I couldn`t put my finger on a problem, but I smelled it. I`ll give you an example. Say I have three or four young reporters. They`re all doing quite well. I`m happy with their work. But one of them keeps coming up with smashing quotes, with breathtakingly unusual story ideas. At first, I love it and I encourage the reporter. But then I notice my other reporters scratching their heads. So I take a closer look. Then I say to myself, Del, you were a pretty good reporter and a fair writer, how come you never found such good stuff? And finally I say to myself, Uh oh, I greatly fear some of this is made up. At that point I say to myself, Have we committed libel? Have we committed slander? Is there anything we need to correct? If the answers are yes, then I have to investigate, and that costs lots of money and time. I might even have to assign other reporters to investigate. That means the suspect writer is halfway out the door already, because he or she has become costly to the newspaper. But if I don`t think the damage is actionable "if I don`t think the paper can be sued "I might just let the reporter go with the excuse that I have to cut back staff.

This is a truly rotten solution to a truly rotten problem, because I really don`t want to pass an ethical problem along to another news operation, another employer, but I don`t have enough information to prove anything. If I refuse to give the reporter a reference, the reporter has a right to ask why. If I tell the reporter why, the reporter has a right to say, Prove it. And since I can`t prove it, well, a lawyer for the reporter might very well take the newspaper to court, saying I had no valid reason to let him or her go.

This is why you want to make sure your behavior in a newsroom is fragrant, not flagrant. Make sure your copy passes the smell test. Now here`s the ethical bottom line. You don`t want it to pass the smell test merely to get away with dressing up your work fraudulently, you want it to pass the smell test because you intend all your life to be an ethical, careful, painstaking journalist. You don`t want to get anything past the copy desk except decent, honest reporting. So don`t get your back up when an editor or another reporter asks questions.

Earlier in the year James Frey published A Million Little Pieces, his story of his own problems with alcohol and the law. It became a best-seller. Oprah Winfrey praised it to the skies and brought him onto her show. It turns out that much of what he wrote just wasn`t true. Oprah was pretty mad.

She brought him back to the show and chewed him out on air. It was great theater, and it was great publicity. What interested me about the book "I should tell you I`m an old police reporter "is that any police reporter who read his account of his dealings with cops, in which he paints himself as breathtakingly belligerent, would have smelled something fishy. So why didn`t his editors? Why didn`t Oprah? Well, the easy answer is that they were never police reporters.  Actually a few reviewers did smell a rat. Janet Maslin in the New York Times raised a warning flag, for one. I`m quite sure I would have. But only because I`ve covered cops.  I`ve seen Mafia hit men act like sweetie pies in the presence of arresting officers, so I wasn`t prepared to believe this guy was anywhere near as tough as he claimed. It`s true, some thugs are too stupid to behave when they`re arrested (they don`t thrive in custody as a result), but something smelled bad here. And some reviewers said so too. But the publisher had a huge seller on its hands, and as for truth, well, what is truth? It`s relative, right? Of course, it`s not, but in an increasingly overheated commercial environment it tends to be one of the first casualties, and that couldn`t have been lost on Frey.

What`s my point? Well, obviously there was a breakdown in the editing process, which happens more and more these days. But sometimes an idea is so good "I mean, we all wanted to believe that this wannabe hood rehabilitated himself, and at the same time we wanted to hear about his thuggery "that we don`t pay attention to our own antennae. Any cop reading that book would have said, Do you believe that?

We live in a society that increasingly hears what it wants to hear. That makes it a dangerous habitat for good journalism. Consider all the questions the press corps didn`t ask when we were being hoodwinked into the Iraq war. Where was the much-vaunted press corps? Asleep at the switch? Yes, of course they were. But another factor was at work. The Bush Administration was telling the public something it wanted to hear: that there was a way to get even with al Qaeda for attacking us. So it just dummied up some quasi-believable stories, ignored the advice of experts, and went to war. It never could have happened if the public wasn`t ready to swallow the bull. Just as it was ready to swallow James Frey`s embroideries.

I don`t know if journalism schools try to examine public gullibility. But I think it`s a big issue. I think the cause may rest partly with poor education and with the jadedness of a society hell-bent on consuming everything in sight. Such a society gets bored fast, and it`s always looking for the next score, the next hit. Just as James Frey says he was always looking for it. This is the kind of society that is sending young people to journalism school. These students come with certain preconceptions. If they`re not prepared to give them up, they`re not going to be good journalists. In fact, they`re going to be terrible journalists. You don`t approach stories with preconceptions. Hunches maybe, yes, but not preconceptions, not your own ideology. And you don`t go to journalism school to get a job, you go to learn how to do the job.  So I think we have a problem on our hands: the lassitude of the public and the press that serves it.

Now ask me how to solve the problem. Damned if I know.

You have been listening to Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook.  If you`d like to know more about what I think, go to www.djelloulmarbrook.com.