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Nov 2 / King Kaufman

Plagiarism in the Romenesko age: One strike and you’re out

Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy

My Twitter pal Dan Kennedy, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University, posted a warning to would-be plagiarists on his Media Nation blog today. The title: Beware the Romenesko Effect.

Romenesko is the founder of the Media News blog that’s been housed at for years. Journalism nerds and insiders read Media News, as Kennedy writes, “compulsively.” Romenesko has announced that he’s retiring, but Media News is continuing.

The Romenesko Effect is the phenomenon of writers and other media creators, especially young ones, being branded as sinners for life for a single act of plagiarism. Kennedy writes:

Time was when a young journalist could recover from a lapse in judgment, learn from his or her mistake and get back on the career ladder. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said about having been fired for plagiarism when she was a 28-year-old reporter for the National Observer, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”

Those days are long gone. Whereas well-connected miscreants such as Mike Barnicle seem never to go away, young reporters caught stealing are briefly held up to national ridicule and then banished into some black hole. My friend Mark Jurkowitz calls it the “Romenesko Effect.”

What inspired Kennedy to write was the latest case—already not the latest, but more on that in a second—a reporter named Walt Gogolya of the Middletown (Conn.) Press, who was caught plagiarizing the local site.

Kennedy, admitting that he’s “not entirely sure what to think about this,” praises the paper for its openness with readers in its response to the issue, and says all of the individual decisions—the plagiarism being exposed, the writer being sanctioned, Media News covering it—are defensible, but “may add up to something that’s disproportionate to the offense.” Kennedy continues:

Essentially, young journalists need to know this: the world in which Nina Totenberg began her career no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. When it comes to journalism’s two cardinal sins, plagiarism and fabrication, it’s now one strike and you’re out.

That sounds about right to me. If it’s a cardinal sin, after all, one strike is plenty. We talked recently around here about how, as a journalist, your credibility is a finite resource. Once you’ve squandered it, it’s gone for good.

I said as much to Kennedy via Twitter, and we had this brief conversation:

The bottom line is that Kennedy’s advice is excellent: Beware. Get caught plagiarizing once and you’ve got a good chance of your career being cooked.

And as if to illustrate my point that this is right and proper, Media News reported later in the day that David Simpson, a cartoonist for Urban Tulsa Weekly, had been caught plagiarizing for the third time.

Simpson was fired from the Tulsa World in 2005 for stealing a cartoon, which at the time he said was a mix-up, a matter of finding an unsigned cartoon in his files, thinking it was his and redrawing it.

Now he’s been caught blatantly ripping off two old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly. Simpson resigned after he was nabbed for the first one. The second one had gone to print before the theft was discovered.

Caught plagiarists often have excuses like “It was a mix-up with my notes.” My impression, which I admit is anecdotal, is that Nina Totenberg’s “holy bejeezus scared out of her” phenomenon is no guarantee of future clean living. Recidivism is common.

The “Romenesko Effect” is brutal but, in my opinion, appropriate, and it mirrors Bleacher Report’s zero tolerance policy. Writers may have gotten second chances in the old days, but not anymore.

Maybe we have Romenesko to thank for that. Maybe we just have the Internet to thank for taking the decision out of the hands of fellow journalists and putting it in the hands of the public. Either way: Beware.

  • Michael Schottey

    I’ve always wondered what drives a writer to plagiarize. In my opinion, good writers have a healthy dose of arrogance which wouldn’t lean on someone else’s words as being better or even as good as.

    Plagiarism, therefore, is a double crime. It isn’t JUST stealing someone else’s work (although that is indefensible) it is also an admission that you’re lazy and/or not confident in your ability as a writer.

    Why anyone would want someone like that around is a mystery.

    • Anonymous

      I wonder about that too. But also, it just seems like such a crazy stupid thing to do. The risk-reward was horrible even before the Internet came along and made the odds of plagiarism being discovered something like 100 percent.

  • Trevor Medeiros

    I like Dan Kennedy. Watch him every week on “Beat the Press” on Boston’s PBS station. Would have to agree with his point about technology changing the leinency regarding plagarism. Thanks to the internet, it’s easier to plagarize, as it’s also easier to get caught. One strike, you’re out seems reasonable in this era

  • Craig Christopher

    There aren’t that many things in life that are truly black and white, and I would think that plagiarism falls into that category. Sure, if someone lifts multiple paragraphs and pushes them as their own, then they should suffer – that’s not an accident. But what about a single paragraph, particularly in the online age where the difference between paragraph and sentence seems difficult to pick.

    We all have our influences and I have no doubt that I have borrowed phrases from Monty Python or PJ O’Rourke in my writing, and done so without attribution. It’s not something that I do deliberately, but where is the line between theft and homage?

    Those of us who put together opinion pieces do so after reading or watching material from a number of different sources. It is inevitable that we will, at some stage, repeat material that we have absorbed in our research. Again, it’s not a deliberate thing, but I have no doubt that it happens.

    As an aspiring writer, I get very annoyed when I find my work “unofficially syndicated” on other websites without attribution to either myself or b/r. I find it reprehensible, but I always write to the site owner and point out the error of their ways and most often they will either take the piece down or link back to b/r.

    I have an ethical problem with zero tolerance. We all, in life, make mistakes. Some are harder to forgive than others but, for me, there’s always room for shades of gray. Interesting post, as always, King. Cheers.