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Nov 19 / King Kaufman

Plagiarism by any other name? CJR on how the definition can be slippery

A long piece on argues that Journalism has a plagiarism problem. But it’s not the one you’d expect.

The piece is tied to coverage of the Fareed Zakaria case. The problem, writes David Uberti, is “that journalists have continuously grappled not only with the definition of plagiarism, but also how to respond to it. Punishment has been consistently inconsistent. And opinions vary on whether such sinners should be allowed back in the church.”

Uberti writes that if you want to know how severely a media outlet is going to punish a writer who plagiarizes, look to what the outlet calls the offense. The P word is reserved for the most serious cases, the ones where the writer is going to get the boot. If the outlet doesn’t want to fire the writer, it’ll find other ways to define the crime, such as failure to attribute properly.

“We save the ‘plagiarism’ word for when we think it’s a really nasty thing,” says former Washington Post copy editor Norman Lewis in the piece. Lewis, Uberti writes, now researches plagiarism at the University of Florida. “That suggests plagiarism occurs when it’s only a capital offense. And when it’s not a capital offense, it’s not plagiarism. We should have an expansive view of plagiarism. We should not be afraid to call it what it is.”

Bleacher Report has long tried to avoid this kind of gray area by requiring strict attribution for all quoted material. As I wrote in this blog when the Zakaria plagiarism scandal first broke two years ago, “If you quote someone, cite where the quote came from and, if possible, link to the original. If you got the quote yourself in an interview, make that clear.”

For guidance: Verifying secondhand sources: A primer and checklist.