Friday, February 8, 2008

When is it plagiarism, really?

I always thought I had a handle on plagiarism or anything that came close to it. A few months ago, I received a story from a freelancer that took word-for-word a chunk of the story from a Web site. The freelancer, who had impeccable newspaper credentials, had not even spoken with the source of the Web site to get permission to use the rather lengthy piece of copy. Nor did the freelancer understand my concern, since the site was credited -- with or without the source's permission.

Afterward, I called several friends, still in the newspaper industry, and asked, "Have I been out of the business so long that something has changed?" I mean, really, it has only been six months, but maybe I've missed something? I felt like the main character played by Holly Hunter in the movie, "Broadcast News." Toward the end of the movie, she discovers her beau, a handsome anchorman played by actor William Hurt, has "faked" tears for a on-air segment on date rape. He tries to justify his lapse of journalistic ethics by explaining that line between wrong and right in the industry just keeps moving -- so you never really know, do you?

But after my gut check with colleagues, I felt better. Nope, they agreed, this wasn't something that would happen at their newspapers -- and I most certainly was right not to want it anywhere near my web site. So I dropped the freelancer from my list of writers and moved on. Until a few days ago, when I wondered again if that line was "moving." That's when the press release from our Web site began to hit other media. We'd done some work we wanted to showcase, so our marketing person sent the information out to her contacts. A few days later, my boss sent me an e-mail with a link to story. "Is this your old stomping grounds?" he asked.

I was tickled. When you're at an Internet startup, having another media outlet pick up your story and use it is exactly what you want. The more the merrier, as long as you get your site name mentioned, it's a win-win proposition. And if the mention drives traffic to the site, then the process worked exactly as it should. But as I read through the lead and into the story, I found myself in a strange place -- other than a few intro graphs and a fresh quote from a local person, the entire rest of the story was word-for-word written by one of my freelancers. While there was a credit for the site, the newspaper reporter also had a byline.

Given what I know about newspapers, I'm betting the reporter had umpteen stories for umpteen sections that needed to get done, and this was a quick hit to move down the list. And given the editor is probably just as pressed, no one noticed that some cutting and pasting had been done. I am not making excuses. I am dealing in reality. And the reality of newsrooms today is simple: advertising is down, newspaper stock prices are taking a beating on Wall Street and newsrooms of -- to quote a former employer -- "non-revenue generating journalists" are expensive to maintain. Because of this, the industry is cutting jobs around the country, and there are fewer people in newsrooms to do the work, which hasn't been cut to reflect the number of workers.

The incident made me wonder, will this kind of thing happen more often? The newspaper editors I talked with (the same ones from the earlier incident) were shocked when I shared my new story. But given the climate of the industry, none seemed entirely surprised. The surprise came when I spoke with my workers at the startup. Two of them -- who have worked in online content for years -- looked at me like I had 10 heads and said, "Oh, this happens all the time with print journalists." Then they went on to give examples from their previous company. They explained why they didn't care and why I, now a web editor, should focus on the quality of our content, not theirs. After all, it was great press, no?

I didn't even know what to say. But the words "great press" weren't exactly what I had in mind.


Stacey A said...

Hi Marisa,

I had a similar revelation while volunteering recently in my son's 4th grade computer class. The teacher was showing the children how to cut and paste text from websites about animals into Microsoft Word documents. As I watched her instruct them -- plagiarism alarm bells going off in my head -- I wondered if I should interrupt her right then or pull her aside after class. Moments later, an opening presented itself. One of the boys tried to copy some text from a site and a computer script stopped him cold. A pop up window appeared telling him that the information was copyrighted and shouldn't be copied. I jumped at the chance to explain the importance of teaching kids early on the importance of citing sources and not stealing others' work. Blocking scripts like the one employed on that site can be disabled by users, but the point is, these scripts clearly let them know that they are violating copyright law by copying the information. Technology makes it so easy to copy music, photos and text that kids don't understand it's stealing. Scripts like these could go a long way toward clarifying just where that plagiarism line is drawn.

Otter said...

Try being a prof...And trust me, they understand.

And I think you're right, it's laziness.

Although if you google a topic and start to read the info--say a medical topic? The stuff on Wiki reads like the stuff on WebMD, which is the same as the national website that sounds exactly like the various state and/or local ones...and on down to personal pages.