Why plagiarize when you can rip off a writer’s thoughts?

March 2, 2015

I could frame this piece about plagiarism by starting with a little verse about a renowned professor who won his fame by appropriating the work of another:

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes

So don’t shade your eyes

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize…

Only be sure always to call it please ‘research.’

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I might credit the author of those lines, the satirist and folk singer Tom Lehrer, but you’d likely think me less clever for merely quoting someone when I could have used an idea of my own.

Perhaps I should start off with what put plagiarism back in journalism’s center court—a series of allegations against prominent writers such as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, The New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell, and BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson. Surely I could get away with quoting from the allegations without any attribution because the two bloggers who investigated the journalists have remained anonymous. They don’t even want credit for their work!

To get at the meta-ness at the heart of journalism’s plagiarism problem—the basic question of how we define plagiarism right now—I could pierce through the jabber with this bit of provocation: Substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources. The actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism.

Those last two sentences, I admit, are not mine. The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote them in Harper’s (and, actually, he didn’t come up with those sentences, either—he took them from Mark Twain). He’s so critical of the rigid way most journalists think about plagiarism that he probably wouldn’t mind if I took his words and used them here, so long as I added an additional thought of my own, a bit of a remix.

I’d start with his two sentences and attach a fillip of my own, something like this: Journalists are so fragile right now, so damaged by years of newsroom cuts and diminishing impact, that we’re more intent than ever on proving our purity, to ourselves and to our readers. We will therefore land ferociously on any miscreant who borrows even four or five words from another source. We will turn ourselves into the plagiarism police, vainly straining to show that our work is original, when, in fact, nearly all journalism is second-order—that is, we discover, report, and interpret the ideas and actions of others.

The conventions of this profession require that I give Lethem credit for his words, both because simply appropriating his language would be theft of a sort, and because I’d be mucking with the basic compact between writer and reader—the idea that in journalism, credibility is our all.

Both journalism and plagiarism have fallen into a murky new reality in which there’s no clear consensus about the old rules. Even the authorities who make the rules disagree over basic definitions. What is plagiarism in a world in which musicians appropriate digital samples of other people’s work into their own creations, only to be praised as innovators? What is plagiarism to an audience that grew up believing it’s okay to appropriate—really, steal—movies, music, and chunks of written work from the internet? What is plagiarism when prominent lawyers and public policy advocates argue that excessive restraints on the reuse of intellectual content inhibit Americans’ creativity?

Artists, musicians, novelists, and even lawyers now debate whether strict old rules about plagiarism unduly restrict what the Constitution calls “the Progress of Science and useful Arts”—the basis for laws of copyright. But is journalism so different from other creative terrain that we must hew to standards that are being relaxed in so many other parts of our culture? Must journalistic rules established way back when cut and paste was a literal instruction now be considered immutable?

This all used to seem so simple: Plagiarism, our high school teachers taught us, is wrong. The Society of Professional Journalists’ position paper on the topic is blunt: “Never plagiarize,” it says. “Whether inadvertent or deliberate, there is no excuse for plagiarism.”

But plagiarism is not that simple. Many old-school purists would agree that if I reworked Lethem’s sentences, I would not be a plagiarist—even if my new wording made liberal use of his idea. Why are we stricter about the use of someone else’s words than we are about claiming his ideas, when the underlying idea is usually more important than the specific wording? In music, visual art, and an increasing number of other fields, lifting a passage or image from another author can be an honorable act. Call it remix, call it sampling—it’s a communal path toward creativity. Yet lifting even a few words from someone else can still get a reporter sacked. How can that be right?

At the risk of exacerbating the generational divide engulfing journalism, let’s start by recognizing that some of the current conflict about plagiarism does trace to the year you were born. Things are shifting so quickly that when Susan Drucker teaches journalism and media ethics courses at Hofstra University in New York, she sees a significant gulf between, say, 23-year-olds and 17-year-olds.

“The graduate students still see literary theft as stealing,” she says, “but the 17- and 18-year-old undergraduates don’t see this as wrong. ‘It’s so easy to copy material on the internet,’ they say. ‘How can it be wrong?'”

Drucker doesn’t buy into the idea that the undergrads will come to see that the rules are the rules, and that they make sense. “Just look at the language: People don’t even say ‘copying’ or ‘theft;’ they say ‘borrowing’ or ‘inserting.’ As the language changes, so does the sense of guilt. We’re becoming comfortable as a culture with the idea that if we add any value at all, we can take credit and authorship. That may seem offensive to older journalists, but in a way, the young people are right, because digital technologies dis-embed: They make it harder to identify the real source of origin. If I mention an article I saw in The New York Times, my students will say they read it on Reddit or through Twitter. By the time it reaches them, they’re not aware of the original source, and they don’t care.”

Why are we stricter about the use of someone else’s words than we are about claiming his ideas?

Still, that’s the classroom, not the newsroom, where one would think the dictates of the marketplace and the traditions of the craft would help maintain a useful distinction between work that is new and that which is recycled. Not so. The same technology that has softened the definition of plagiarism has also made it radically easier to plagiarize, intentionally or not. “I just cut and pasted and then I forgot,” say many reporters who have been caught using lifted language. Copied material gets inserted into a reporter’s draft and before you know it, the reporter is saying, “I forgot to change the wording,” or “I forgot to insert attribution.”

“Building on others’ stories is nothing new,” says Steve Buttry, a longtime editor, most recently at Digital First Media, who teaches and coaches journalists at Louisiana State University. “There was always a genre of story we called the ‘clip job,’ where a reporter parachuted in, did some original reporting to advance the story, but mainly relied on a whole lot of stuff from other sources that wasn’t credited. What’s new is that there are people out there being plagiarism cops.”

Two prominent members of that new breed of wording police are so much a product of the digital age that they are known only by their Twitter handles, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, authors of the blog Our Bad Media. Since last summer, the two word cops have used digital technology to level detailed allegations of plagiarism against foreign affairs columnist Zakaria of CNN and The Washington Post; Johnson, a master of the listicle at BuzzFeed; and The New Yorker‘s Gladwell.

Zakaria was previously accused of lifting language from books and articles by other writers; CNN suspended and then reinstated him. His bosses defended him against a second wave of allegations, with Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt saying it’s hardly plagiarism to use the same facts that someone else has cited.

Johnson was caught pasting into his own work phrases and sentences from Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, and a slew of magazines and newspapers. He was immediately sacked at BuzzFeed but quickly landed a job as a social media editor at National Review, with Politico’s Mike Allen noting that the plagiarist was getting a “surprisingly quick shot at redemption.” In February, Johnson joined Independent Journal Review as creative content director.

Since the authors of the blog Our Bad Media won’t say who they are or what they do for a living (they say they are not working journalists), we know nothing about their motives, ideological or otherwise. But whether you view the duo as vigilantes or the vanguard of a consumer-driven era of accountability, they have forced editors to consider their allegations and provide answers. Yet despite Our Bad Media’s exhaustive detailing of similarities between their targets’ stories and the sources they failed to cite, all of the alleged plagiarists are still gainfully employed.

Gladwell’s editor, David Remnick, responded to the case against his writer with a statement wondering how best to credit a source: “The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere—to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources? It’s an issue that can get complicated when there are many sources with overlapping information.”

The violations that Our Bad Media seeks to chronicle are the old-fashioned kind: Writers incorporating someone else’s work into their own. But a major contributor to the haze around plagiarism these days is a different and rapidly growing kind of journalism—aggregation.

Many editors I spoke to say a disproportionate number of recent plagiarism cases result from the growing practice of producing articles based entirely or mostly on the work of others. Aggregation, many say, makes journalists—especially young ones—especially susceptible to word larceny.

At new media outlets such as BuzzFeed and Mashable as well as at old-line print and broadcast operations, aggregation has emerged as a cheap and effective way to cover a far broader array of news than current staff levels might otherwise support. Aggregation is hardly new; “from combined sources” is a line that ran over countless news stories in papers for upwards of a century, as editors cobbled together accounts using wires and files from major newspapers. But the new aggregators are under increasing pressure to produce fresh copy in the moment to take advantage of whatever’s trending on social media.

“With aggregation, there’s definitely an erosion of attribution,” says Jonathan Bailey, 34, a consultant who blogs at Plagiarism Today and investigates plagiarism allegations for clients, including some news organizations. “The people doing the copying and pasting think they’re just sharing the way they would on Facebook. And employers sometimes look the other way because there is money in the added traffic: If I aggregate your story, I’m capturing some of your search traffic and that can cost you tens of thousands in revenue.”

Julie Westfall runs the Real-Time News Desk at the Los Angeles Times, where she and five reporters try to keep the Times‘ site at the leading edge of events. Their goal is to do as much original reporting as they can, but the nature of breaking and trending news is that the first accounts often come from elsewhere.

“Our job is to help get confirmed stuff on all of our platforms as quickly as possible,” says Westfall, 34. “We aggregate when someone has something confirmed that we can’t get right away.” Although there’s no written rule, Westfall tells her staff that “we need to say where stuff comes from,” as in “police told the Associated Press that…”

But in the moment, such decisions aren’t always simple. “My team and The Washington Post‘s and Gawker and BuzzFeed are all figuring out when to attribute,” Westfall says. “That’s where there could be a generational difference. Young people are more likely to say the information is out there and you can’t ignore it. Sometimes it’s not efficient to keep trying to get hold of a person to essentially say the same thing that they’ve already said to another reporter.”

‘It’s so easy to copy material on the internet,’ they say. ‘How can it be wrong?’

In the cultural battles over aggregation, the word “plagiarism” gets bandied about all too loosely. Often, the grumbling about aggregation is really more about basic courtesy. In January, an editor at the Guardian, Erin McCann, tweaked BuzzFeed on Twitter for publishing a story based almost entirely on a Guardian reporter’s account of the opening of Paul Revere’s time capsule at a Boston museum. The journalistic infraction was not plagiarism—after all, the BuzzFeed piece was made up primarily of the Guardian reporter’s tweets, prominently including his name. But nowhere did BuzzFeed acknowledge The Guardian, at least not until McCann complained, after which BuzzFeed added a hat tip to the bottom of its piece.

“It would have been nice if they’d said in the text of the BuzzFeed piece that a Guardian reporter was on the scene and reported the story,” Westfall says. “The fact that that’s not done in every single story is the result of the shades of gray”—the lingering uncertainty about when to attribute.

The rule is simple for Buttry, who says he saw several cases of aggregation that crossed the line into plagiarism when he worked at Digital First Media, the newspaper chain that experimented with a heavy emphasis on aggregation for its national and foreign coverage. “They all resulted in discipline, typically a stern rebuke and suspension,” he says.

Buttry offers a four-word solution: When in doubt, attribute. “Sometimes you don’t remember where you got an idea, or it’s a mash-up,” he says. “But when you know the source of your inspiration, you should acknowledge it, maybe in the story or maybe in a social media post or even an email to the original reporter. Then that person feels flattered, not ripped off.”

That solution, however, assumes that the plagiarist knows he’s doing something considered morally wrong. How do you defend against a misdeed when its perpetrators don’t think they’ve broken any rules?

I called a bunch of people who had been caught plagiarizing and had lost their jobs because of it. Some didn’t return my messages; those who did said the last thing they wanted to do was freshen up the Google references to the worst episode in their lives.

“The best thing is to just be honest about it,” says one former reporter who got caught and never found another job in journalism. “The conversation about plagiarism needs to happen. I’d just rather not be defined by it. All I can say is that anytime you make a mistake like that, it has a short-term and a long-term impact, and both of them are huge.”

As a young reporter at a small newspaper, this man lifted a chunk of a press release and put it directly into his story about a local business. The reporter says he thought what he did was considered okay—he was getting the same information across either way, and there wasn’t anything special about the news release’s wording.

Hearing that he was going to be fired, he quit. Later, he told prospective employers that he’d done “something really, really stupid” and wanted to redeem himself.

Now, he says, he realizes he broke the rules, but he believes plenty of others in his position do the same thing without the slightest notion that they are jeopardizing their jobs.

Kelly McBride spends a lot of her time working with editors who’ve caught plagiarists and with reporters who’ve been found out. McBride, who for many years has taught ethics at the Poynter Institute, has no doubt that people who intentionally steal others’ work should be fired. Still, she has a root empathy for those who get caught, especially for those she considers petty plagiarists—that is, those with no pattern of abuse.

Often, she says, those cases involve people who panic. Three plagiarists I spoke to blamed their infractions on moving too quickly under pressure to produce, an excuse for which many editors have zero patience, since journalism has always valued speed.

But McBride says the combination of a stepped-up pace of production and a sharp decrease in supervision is producing many more infractions. “These are mostly young people who struggle with the mechanics of writing,” she says, “and when you struggle with mechanics, you are much, much more likely to plagiarize.”

Add the thinning ranks of editors and you have a problem. “I started out sitting next to editors who showed me, okay, let’s find the subject and the verb in this sentence, editors who stuck with me,” McBride says. “Without the grace of those editors, I don’t know that I’d have made it. In most newsrooms right now, that doesn’t happen.”

On top of the lack of guidance, there’s the shift toward a remix culture and the resulting confusion about what constitutes honest aggregation. “As journalism institutions, we are not clear about standards when we ask people to aggregate,” McBride says. “When those young people who start out as aggregators move into original reporting, they will be confused.”

Amid that jumble of standards, under the crushing power of the scarlet P, is it time for a ceasefire in the war on plagiarism? Some notorious plagiarists are serial offenders—con artists and fabulists such as Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass—but should there be different penalties for those who broke rules that were never clear to them in the first place?

No one argues for wholesale theft of others’ work, but a growing chorus of academics and others find it counterproductive to focus on rooting out scofflaws. As far back as the 19th century, the German poet Heinrich Heine, citing literary stealing by Goethe and Shakespeare, wrote that “Nothing is sillier than this charge of plagiarism… The poet dare help himself wherever… he finds material suited to his work.”

In all forms of art and culture, appropriation of others’ work is essential to creativity, Lethem contends. The American mistake, he says, has been to adopt a mercantile, legalistic ethic in which a piece of writing is a commercial product rather than a way to advance ideas and spread information for the public good.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, takes the notion that ideas want to be free a step farther. In his books, Free Culture and Remix, Lessig says it’s wrong to apply to writing the same rules we use to protect against theft. “Ideas released to the world are free,” he writes. “I don’t take anything from you when I copy the way you dress.” He quotes Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Gladwell, responding to Our Bad Media’s allegations, directed readers to a piece he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004 about his reaction when a playwright used, without attribution, passages from one of his own articles. Initially miffed, Gladwell examined why plagiarism has become such an ethical tripwire. When he finally confronted the playwright, Bryony Lavery, about why she hadn’t credited him for the material, she told him: “I thought it was OK to use it… I thought it was news.”

Gladwell found some merit in that notion. “When I worked at a newspaper,” he wrote, “we were routinely dispatched to ‘match’ a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we ‘matched’ any of the Times‘ words—even the most banal of phrases—it could have been a firing offense.”

That notion of originality, Gladwell concluded, is “the narcissism of small differences: Because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.” He decided to let go of his offense over his words being appropriated; he would no longer pretend “that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.”

Does that mean Gladwell wouldn’t mind if I took one of his elegant New Yorker pieces and published it under my byline in The Washington Post, where we were once colleagues? Of course not, because by merely stealing his words, I would not be doing anything creative. If, however, I published an annotated version of his story, challenging or building upon his reporting and thinking, Gladwell might feel honored.

Even among journalism’s purists, there’s a growing sense that although giving credit to others is essential, the remix culture has enriched a creative person’s toolkit. “Before the internet, I don’t think we appreciated the way borrowing and sampling informed original work,” McBride says. “I’m a parent of an actress/comedian and a musician and I see how their work is built on other stuff. We in journalism developed this false pride where journalists feel diminished giving credit to others who’ve done similar work. It’s so silly.”

Even the man who sells software designed to catch plagiarists recognizes that nailing people for lifting a few words is a misdemeanor compared to the felony of stealing someone else’s ideas. But prosecuting misdemeanors has a larger purpose, says Chris Harrick, an executive of Turnitin, a purveyor of plagiarism detection software that’s popular among universities and has a few media clients as well.

“Plagiarizing ideas is abstract,” he says, “so people go after text matches.” It’s analogous to the controversial “broken windows” idea in criminal justice: By attacking the little infractions, you set the bar, diminishing the likelihood that bad guys will attempt more severe crimes. Letting low-level violators slip away by making excuses about the nature of digital culture is buying into moral and ethical decline, Harrick says.

“People still care about fairness, about maintaining social and moral barriers against dishonesty,” he says. “There’s a lot of worry that the lines of originality have been blurred with retweeting, sharing, and sampling, so kids from middle school to college often don’t have a good sense of what it means to be original.”

This strikes Gene Weingarten as hokum. I called my longtime editor and friend because he had written a piece contending, in his usual genteel manner, that the sacking of Benny Johnson for serially plagiarizing BuzzFeed listicles was “petty bull-poo.”

Weingarten, who writes a column in The Washington Post Magazine, says using a hair-trigger definition of plagiarism in the brave new world of aggregation and digital sweatshops mocks the real thing. “In the public mind, real plagiarism is conflated with trivial stuff,” Weingarten says. “Nobody expects an aggregated story to be entirely original work. If you’re reading a listicle on BuzzFeed about North Korea, do people think the writer produced nine pieces in one day and went to Pyongyang in his spare time?”

Weingarten sees an important difference between deliberate stealing of someone’s creative work and careless copying of boilerplate information. “I would be happy to join my tut-tutting brethren and denounce this sort of lazy, crappy writing so long as we don’t call it ‘plagiarism,'” he says. The lesser infraction is “a failure of creativity and diligence, not a serious ethical flaw.”

So, I ask, what material is okay to copy? A couple of grafs from a routine police story? “No, that’s the reporter’s own work,” he replies. “He went out and put himself in a dangerous situation to get that.”

Fine, how about a quote from the president’s speech? “That’s not stealing,” Weingarten says. Even if I pick up some other reporter’s transcribing error? “That’s bad, but it’s laziness, not plagiarism,” he says.

We go on like this for a while before Weingarten grumbles that I’ve dragged him into exactly what he objects to about the new gotcha plagiarism-hunting: “It’s this kindergarten game of ‘what’s okay?'”

So where does that leave us? How do we focus on real, pernicious, trust-busting plagiarism without spending undue energy sniffing out people who fail to reword a smart phrase they ran across in their reporting?

“I feel certain there is a way to define what’s real plagiarism and what’s trivial,” Gene says. “The way is to ask me on a case-by-case basis.”

A funny notion now, in the age of Our Bad Media and Turnitin, when the entire world has been deputized as the plagiarism police. But what Weingarten suggests is exactly the way it worked Before Google. Editors decided, period.

The world has changed. Undoubtedly, a culture in which sparkling achievements and insights are available for anyone to reshape makes for a richer intellectual landscape. It would be a shame to limit creativity because a software program can ferret out every reuse of a perfect phrase. Journalism must always be about honesty, clarity, and credibility. Those foundations will not be shaken if we make our definition of plagiarism more complex, mapping a spectrum on which minor infractions fall on one end and wholesale theft on the other. We are still responsible for governing ourselves. Dive into the ocean of ideas, grab the tastiest bits, make creative use of them—but always with generous, plentiful nods to those who came before you. Culture changes constantly. Courtesy and respect are forever.

Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post.