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Aug 21 / King Kaufman

What to take away from the latest Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case

Another high-profile plagiarism case is in the media news this week. Our Bad Media, in a post credited only to the Twitter handles @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, accused foreign policy expert Fareed Zakaria of 12 instances of plagiarism committed before August 2012.

That date is when Zakaria was caught plagiarizing a Jill Lepore article in the New Yorker for his column in Time and a post at Zakaria admitted wrongdoing, said, “I made a terrible mistake,” and apologized. Time and CNN both suspended him.

A week later, both outlets announced that that they had investigated Zakaria’s previous work for plagiarism and not found it. In Time’s words, “We are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.”

Note: CNN and Bleacher Report share a corporate parent, Time Warner. At the time of Zakaria’s suspension in 2012, Time Magazine was also owned by Time Warner, but is now part of a separate company.

Zakaria also writes a column for the Washington Post, whose editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, has defended him against the new charges. Hiatt also said that the paper had reviewed Zakaria’s earlier work in 2012 and found no plagiarism.

The new Our Bad Media findings call into question those investigations:

In the light of our findings, we have to call bullshit. It took less than an hour and a few Google searches for us at Our Bad Media to find an example of lifting in Zakaria’s columns written before the 2012 plagiarism scandal. So we’re left to wonder: did TIME, CNN, or the Washington Post actually conduct good faith reviews of Zakaria’s work? Have they since?

Emphasis in the original.

Zakaria has defended himself, in a statement he gave to Politico media reporter Dylan Byers, and Our Bad Media shot right back, calling him a liar and rebutting his claims that he had merely used the same facts as others by pointing out long passages in Zakaria’s writing that matched, right down to the punctuation, that of other writers.

In light of this issue that looks like it could ruin the career of one of journalism’s biggest names, you might find two stories about plagiarism interesting. The first is this blog post by Steve Buttry, in which he considers many of the issues around attribution and plagiarism. There are many links to earlier posts on the subject too.

A key takeaway: attribution is the difference between plagiarism and research. That is: Attribute everything. And another, which Buttry calls the bottom line:

Whether you’re a student journalist or a multi-platform star like Zakaria: Readers and viewers want to know how we know what we know. We should attribute and link. Always.

That almost sounds like Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know is true, and tell us how you know it.

The second is a 20-minute interview by CBC Radio with Poynter Institute ethics expert Kelly McBride, who has many interesting things to say about plagiarism, including the idea that checking for a pattern of violations is the first step a news organization should take in any plagiarism case.

If such a pattern isn’t found, McBride says, and it really is an “isolated incident,” then she’s willing to consider the idea that the offense was a “misdemeanor,” and the problem can be solved with better training.