Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Is It Plagiarism or Just a Mistake?

There is a website called Regret The Error that has done a round up of all the acts of plagiarism in the news business this year. It’s a sobering collection, featuring many prominent newspapers around the country.

Somehow I’m not entirely convinced that all of these were deliberate acts of falsehood. In our zeal to identify people who abuse the public trust, I fear we tar those who have just made mistakes. Reporters always look at what has been written about a topic before they begin their own reporting; without this step they would not be well-informed when they approach sources.

In collecting all the information available for a story, reporters sometimes do forget where that information came from. He or she may forget to flag various sentences as belonging to someone else and may then incorporate them as part of their own work.

It is important to make a distinction between these acts of so-called plagiarism and more malicious acts of outright theft. (I am not talking about acts on the order of the New York Times’ Jason Blair, who made up people and said he visited places he had never seen.) While it is not all right to use anyone else's work, it is not necessarily a deliberate, conscious act of theft, which is how I define plagiarism.

My skepticism comes from my own history as a reporter. I know most of my colleagues value their reputations more than anything else. They want to report the truth, so they have to be truthful themselves. Their integrity is their only calling card. It’s a lot to throw away for a few paragraphs.

I write this after a recent conversation with a reporter who has been accused of plagiarism. His story incorporated themes from another publication and an almost complete paragraph from that publication. The reporter said it was not a deliberate falsehood, but an accident, a mistake that has tarred his career. The anguish in his voice was painful to hear. But his words were compelling, and I can see how he honestly made a mistake. But because of the current distrust of the press, and the media’s willingness to make amends no matter how onerous, his job is at stake.

(From Bookslut)

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