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Sharing not stealing: issues of plagiarism in the new media landscape

Sharing not stealing: issues of plagiarism in the new media landscape

"Thou shalt not plagarise". This phrase surely must be somewhere near the top of the ten commandments of journalism.

Hence in 2005, when David Simpson, then-cartoonist for The Tulsa World, was found to have redrawn somebody else's work, the paper's publisher Robert E. Lorton III dismissed him, saying he had committed "the cardinal sin of a newsroom". The story was reported at the time by the AP and picked up by Sign On San Diego.

Still, there's no peace for the wicked; history has repeated itself. After his dismissal from The Tulsa World, Simpson was hired by the Urban Tulsa Weekly but, as Poynter reports, he was fired yesterday for further instances of copying other people's work.

And Simpson's not the only news professional recently brought up for plagiarism. Another Poynter article published on Monday points out that a journalist from the Journal Register Company's Middletown Press was found to have plagiarised "significant portions" of an article about a man charged with disorderly conduct from a local Patch website.

The plagarism was discovered and the Editor of the Press published a note, saying that the similarities between the articles "violates both our policies at The Middletown Press, Journal Register Company and Digital First Media, as well as basic journalistic standards. Walt Gogolya, the reporter who wrote the article, is no longer employed at The Middletown Press."

Both of these cases seem pretty obvious instances of deliberate copying. Still, the issue isn't always so clear, and even big name publications can be subject to criticism. An article in Media Bistro today pointed out that when the New York Times published a story about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain's alleged involvement in a sexual harrasment case, it failed to credit Politico, the organisation which had the scoop. With more than a dash of sarcasm, author of the article Betsy Rothstein points out "Weirdly, the NYT cites HLN and Fox News -- so they do understand the concept of attribution." Yet, in the article in question, Politico is not named.

But the case might be considered a grey area because the Times' piece is one of two articles published by the paper about the Cain allegations that day, the other of which fully acknowledges Politico. Is it necessary to keep naming Politico as the one who got there first in every subsequent piece about the issue? Or just at first?

"No plagarism" is an age-old rule of journalism, but there may be legitimate practical questions about how to apply it in today's new media landscape. Another Poynter article published yesterday suggests that online journalists are less concerned about getting exclusives and more worried about being "the first to provide a snappy outtake of the news." This may involve sharing and aggregating material, found on social media sites among other places, and coming up with the best response.

If journalists are finding news by sharing, how far down to chain to you go when giving credit? If you find an article through Facebook, for example, do you acknowledge the person who shared it as well as the author? If the article which is your source features lots of links, do you credit all of them in addition to the main article, even if you don't cite them directly?

Some great, practical answers are provided by Steve Buttry in this long blog post (hat tip to journalism.co.uk) His basic rule of thumb seems to be "When in doubt, attribute," but he also provides some more subtle guidelines, along with ways to properly acknowledge sources without disrupting the flow of a piece. He ends by pragmatically acknowledging that when it comes to the subject of articles, "journalists share, steal and copy story ideas routinely" and he suggests that "the Golden Rule might apply... If this story is so original that any imitation would feel like a ripoff if it was yours, you probably should give credit."

So, for all the complexity of today's media, maybe it just comes down to common sense. When it comes to sharing, it comes down to openness and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Sources: Poynter (1) (2) (3), Sign On San Diego, The Middleton Press, Media Bistro, New York Times (1) (2) Steve Buttry, Journalism.co.uk



Hannah Vinter


2011-11-02 19:22

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