Eight reasons plagiarism sucks.

Media criticism.
March 7 2008 5:54 PM

Eight Reasons Plagiarism Sucks

It harms readers, in its heart beats a lie, it corrupts, and five more.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Readers have stormed my inbox, accusing me of "picking nits" in the latest of my two columns about the plagiarism of New York Times reporter Alexei Barrionuevo (Feb. 27 and March 5). One reader found my charge "hyperactive." Another insisted that Barrionuevo's lifting from Bloomberg News was akin to "repeating the bus schedule," hence no foul. Another ridiculed me, saying I exist inside an "echo chamber" of journalists, academics, and bloggers who "care about this crap."

As I read that last note, I realized that I needed to explain in detail why plagiarism matters and why journalists, academics, and bloggers are right to care about it. In order of importance, here are my eight reasons plagiarism sucks:

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It swindles readers. One of my correspondents mistakenly thought that what disturbed me most about plagiarism was that it robs other writers of their labors. That's the least of my problems. Plagiarism burns me up because it violates the implied warranty that comes with every piece of journalism. Unless qualified with citations or disclaimers such as "compiled from wire reports," news articles are supposed to be original work.

When a reporter appropriates the words of another without credit, he gives the reader the mistaken impression that he has independently verified the primary facts in his story. So, if the first reporter got stuff wrong—dates, names, places, events—the lazy and corrupt second reporter will end up cheating the reader out of the true story.

(Plagiarism aside, some editors discourage their reporters from milking Nexis for research not because they worry about their guys pinching but because they worry about their guys inadvertently retransmitting other guys' mistakes and clichés, setting them ever deeper in stone.)

Journalism is about truth, not lies. I cringe at writing those precious words, but like Samantha Power, I've released them and can't yank them back. A reporter who abducts the work of another reporter without giving credit tells a skeezy lie with every keyboard stroke. "I wrote that," he lies. The plagiarist's fraud dissolves the trust between his publication and its reader; it injures the reader (of course), the plagiarist's publication, the plagiarist's colleagues, and the plagiarist's profession. (Good lord, am I starting to sound like a weepy Committee of Concerned Journalists parishioner?)

It corrupts the craft. This is really a corollary of "Harms Readers" and "Truth, Not Lies." Every plagiarism bust reinforces the view of readers and viewers who already believe the profession is filled with lying, psychopathic scum. Bank robbers injure only the banks they rob. Plagiarists injure the entire journalism profession, even the most scrupulous and honest of practitioners.

It promotes the dishonest. One path to journalistic success is productivity. Another is writing deeply sourced stories. The industrious plagiarist combines both techniques, routinely out-producing his colleagues with stolen, excellent copy. When the time comes to appoint a new London bureau chief or a new deputy editor for metro, who is going to get the slot: the good reporter or the supercharged, not-yet-apprehended plagiarist. Nobody will deny that rewarding cheaters for cheating sucks. But again, the greatest injury isn't done to other journalists but to readers. When the less-talented fellow gets the better job, the paper (or magazine or Web site or broadcast) suffers, and that suffering is inflicted upon readers.

It denigrates the hard work of others. How often do convicted plagiarists or their apologists attempt to blot away the plagiarists' crimes by saying, "Oh, the borrowing was trivial." Or, "That was just a boilerplate story." They'll insist that there are only so many ways to write "Joe Doe, the famous rope climber, died in his bed last night from a gunshot wound," and that such news story similarities are inevitable.

The problem with the boilerplate excuse is that news stories written by nonplagiarists almost never overlap the way the stories written by plagiarists do. I thought I made this point in my last Barrionuevo story by publishing a sidebar that stacked the opening paragraphs from his "mad cow" story against those from the Bloomberg story he lifted from and the accounts published by the globeandmail.com and the Omaha World-Herald. Except for Barrionuevo, each journalist quoted in the sidebar brought to the alleged boilerplate their unique news judgment.