Plagiarism is only as wrong as we make it


We need to hold seasoned, high-profile journalists to the same standards that we expect future generations of journalists to uphold, Anne McNeilly argues. But how the industry has, at times, responded this year to Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and now Margaret Wente has not set the best example.


By Anne McNeilly


We need to hold seasoned, high-profile journalists to the same standards that we expect future generations of journalists to uphold, Anne McNeilly argues. But how the industry has, at times, responded this year to Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and now Margaret Wente has not set the best example.


By Anne McNeilly

In a cut-and-paste universe, plagiarizing — whether “accidentally” or deliberately — and its close cousin, “patchwriting,” have never been easier. Technology has not only made enormous amounts of information easily accessible, but cutting some here and pasting some there (patching), has made it a breeze to “borrow” and/or combine material from a variety of sources.

But just how wrong is it?  

I recently asked a journalism class to discuss cheating/patching for a column-writing assignment. The student consensus was that plagiarizing isn’t really cheating. The problem is only if, or when, you get caught. Why was I surprised to read column after student column describing the various ways and means the writer had cheated on exams and assignments.? Most acknowledged it wasn’t right, but it wasn’t so wrong they couldn’t write freely about it in a column. Patching could be done so inadvertently it wasn’t even an issue.

And why should students think it an issue when (some) high-profile journalists borrow and paste with virtual impunity?*  The Globe and Mail’s national columnist defended herself in her column Tuesday against charges of plagiarism and patching that were serious enough to prompt The Globe’s editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, to describe her work on the Globe’s website as “unacceptable.”

Although he acknowledges that Wente’s work failed to meet the paper’s code of conduct, there’s no indication there will be a consequence (at least publicly). More astonishingly though is that Wente describes University of Ottawa professor Carol Wainio, who found the problems in the columnist’s work, as “smearing” her (Wente’s) reputation for pointing out her (Wente’s)  lack of journalistic integrity. 

The only outcome from the hue and cry that has erupted in the twittersphere and media circles is that the Globe’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, who initially vaguely acknowledged some problems in Wente’s work (she later addressed them more directly), will now report to the publisher rather than Stackhouse to give more of an appearance of being at arm’s length to the newsroom.

No wonder students are writing columns that suggest plagiarism isn’t wrong unless you get caught. 

Response, explanation, justification

Over the summer, best-selling U.S. writer Jonah Lehrer was able to remain in his prestigious writing position at The New Yorker after admitting he had recycled some of his own material.  He apologized and went back to work. It was only after it emerged a month later that he had fabricated quotes and attributed them to singer/songwriter Bob Dylan in his best-selling book that he was forced to resign.  Did it affect his reputation?  Not much. He still continued to write for and has a host of followers on Twitter.

Lehrer was only finished at Wired a month after that when independent investigator, New York University professor Charles Seife, turned up even more problems with his work.  Wired announced that it was finished with Lehrer at the end of August.

Seife expresses sympathy for Lehrer who is only 30 and had a meteoric rise to his post at The New Yorker.  “. . . my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment,” Seife wrote in an August 31 piece in Slate.

And then there’s Fareed Zakaria, an older, more experienced journalist than Lehrer. Zakaria hosts a CNN show and writes for Time magazine, as well as The Washington Post. He was also in the spotlight this summer after two paragraphs in one of his Time columns were discovered to be the same as two written by Jill Lepore in the April 23 issue of New Yorker magazine.  

“I made a terrible mistake,” Zakaria said in a statement released in August. “It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers. ”

Zakaria returned to his CNN show on August 26, and resumed his column writing without much further ado.  It’s never been clearly explained or reported how another writer’s work ended up under his byline.

And instead of censure he’s received sympathy. Why? Because with a TV show, two columns and writing books, he’s under a lot of pressure. And he’s so talented!  At least those are a couple of reasons that have been given. Zakaria says it was a mistake – he just got some notes mixed up.  NYT reporter Christine Haughney even reported that members of the media rallied around him.

So, business as usual.  

Similarly, The New York Times stood by columnist Maureen Dowd, who sailed through plagiarism charges a couple of years ago and continues to write her column.  

How times have changed! More than 20 years ago, the Toronto Star’s former esteemed books editor Ken Adachi committed suicide following suggestions that he had plagiarized work from Time magazine.  

Have the lines been blurred?

Is it an indication that plagiarism in our digital age — particularly if it’s only a few paragraphs here and there — is no longer as worrisome a problem as it used to be, especially with cash-strapped news publications trying to do more with less?  Or is it that, with Google, plagiarism is not only easier to uncover, but also to do — both inadvertently and on purpose?

In either case, what kind of message does it send to students, many of whom would say they are under every bit as much pressure as Lehrer and Zakaria? According to some U.S. research, many university students, who grew up downloading music, and with Google at their fingertips aren’t even aware that there’s a problem with cutting and pasting someone else’s words. Despite increasingly tough copyright laws, words for this group may seem ephemeral – stealing them, or cutting and pasting, may no longer appear to be the same crime that taking someone’s belongings might be.  

Most would agree that both Lehrer and Zakaria crossed a line, but the line, when it comes to news and information, seems to be getting ever fuzzier.    

The rights and wrongs of copying

Teaching journalism students that plagiarism is a sin, especially when experienced and high-profile journalists are being let off so easily, can be challenging. Often that line involves a judgment call. How do you tell a novice journalist that it’s not okay to copy, but that it is okay to drop two paragraphs of background into a breaking story from an earlier story on the same issue in your publication’s library?  

What about dropping several of your own background paragraphs from an earlier story into a story that’s being updated?  Many, including me, would say this is expediting the story on deadline and/or bringing a reader unfamiliar with the story up to speed.  Why waste time revisiting relevant information you’ve already written?

There are, no doubt, numerous examples of the same two (or three or four) background paragraphs in a variety of stories. Remember when the constitutional implications of the Meech Lake accord were (endlessly) in the news back in the late 1980s? Rewriting the background for every piece as this major story unfolded over years, would have been a waste of time comparable to trying to reinvent the wheel.

More than 20 years ago, a reporter for The Globe and Mail dropped a couple of technical paragraphs describing a difficult maneuver into her story about figure skating that were not her own. She was fired. When she launched a wrongful dismissal suit, even the judge agreed what she had done wasn’t plagiarism, and the reporter returned to work with back pay.

Often, when the news is unmistakable, a hard news lead writes itself and the variation on it from publication to publication can be insignificant. Consider the following leads on the same event, which all appeared on the same day in 2007. Is there really any other way to say: Two bombs exploded?

The National Post:

Two bombs exploded in an attack targeting a vehicle carrying former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto on her return from eight years in exile yesterday, killing at least 125 people in one of the deadliest blasts in the country’s history.  Is there really any other way to say: Two bombs exploded?

The New York Times:

Two bombs exploded Thursday just seconds apart and feet from a truck carrying the returning opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, narrowly missing her but killing scores of people and bloodying a triumphal homecoming after eight years in exile.

The Globe and Mail:

Benazir Bhutto’s triumphal return from exile was shattered yesterday as two bombs exploded near her motorcade, killing more than 120 and wounding at least 200 in a near-successful attempt to assassinate the former prime minister.

Other grey areas

What about reporters who are asked to “match” a story that originates in another publication? Is it plagiarism? Well, no.  But some might say matching a story is stealing information that appeared somewhere else first — that is, before you got it. Often, the theft — if it can even be called that — can be disguised by presenting the info from a different angle, or providing new details.  And no one would say reading a variety of news publications for ideas for stories is plagiarism.   

But perhaps even the notion of “matching” a story is outdated now that technological advances have made the deadline obsolete. News is online or tweeted or blogged so fast it’s difficult, unless it’s an investigative piece, to determine who was on it first.  And daily reporters now tweet while an event is unfolding and compete with wire services to be the first to post stories online.  Reporting events in real time does not lend itself to creativity in language use, although the time-honoured principles of accuracy and fairness are still in force.

Plagiarism cases of the past

Thirty years ago, talented Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke lost her Pulitzer Prize and her job after she led her story with a young drug addict, who didn’t actually exist.  If only she’d said he was a composite, she might still be reporting today. Instead, not much has been seen or heard from her since. She disappeared ignominiously from the media world. Even Google doesn’t turn up much about her – just one interview from 15 years ago.  If it happened today, would the consequences have been as severe? After all, like Lehrer and Zakarias, she was a talented reporter.

Magazine writer Stephen Glass, was another “talented” writer, and he’s still paying for stories he made up 14 years ago that ran in The New Republic even though he, and many others, attest  to his rehabilitation. After his journalism career came to an abrupt and public end, Glass completed a law degree from Georgetown University. However, he has since been refused entrance to the New York bar as well as the California bar — though the latter decision is now under appeal.  Columnist Joe Nocera recently argued powerfully in his favour in The Times, while Jack Shafer wrote just as strong column in Reuters that describes Glass as a “confessed liar” who should never be trusted, particularly in a court room.  

More than a few well-known writers have taken a bemused approach to plagiarism – George Orwell, for example, once said “the only writer worth stealing from is Dickens,” while Ralph Emerson quipped that all his “best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”

But perhaps the last word should go to the late songwriter Tom Lehrer:

Plagiarize, plagiarize,/ Let no man's work evade your eyes,/ Remember why the good Lord made your eyes, / Don't shade your eyes, /But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize./ Only be sure to call it research.


Clarification Mon. Sept 24 at 11 p.m. "Patching" has been changed to "patchwriting."

Update Wed. Sept. 26 2 p.m. to include McNeilly's take on The Globe's response in the introductory paragraphs of this piece.

Update Thurs. Sept. 27 10:30 a.m. to delete a duplicate paragraph with dated information about the Wente case.