Plagiarism in the Romenesko age: One strike and you’re out
Romenesko is the founder of the Media News blog that’s been housed at Poynter.org 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 Patch.com 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.