The price of plagiarism

This post is written by Andrew M. Seaman, who is a member of SPJ’s ethics committee.

The decision by the Knight Foundation to pay Jonah Lehrer, who has admitted fabricating quotes and duplicating material, $20,000 for a speech brought swift ire from many journalists.

I join that disappointed chorus; the Knight Foundation’s choice to use its money in this way is antithetical to its long tradition of advancing the field on so many fronts. But it’s also important to remember that plagiarism and shoddy journalism’s price tag is much higher than $20,000. Thieves and fabricators cost us much more through collateral damage.

Every day, journalists work hard to explain the world. While some of them are bad apples, the vast majority hold true to the Society of Professional Journalists’ first ethical tenet: seek truth and report it.

Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to do that, especially with decreasing support from many news organizations that live by the motto: do more with less.

And while most good journalists are recognized internally by their editors and colleagues for their hard work, only a few – Cronkite, Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein – will become household names with the public.

Still, journalists show up each day to do their work and report on everything from local school board meetings to civil wars.

But just because a report is broadcast, printed or posted doesn’t mean people will watch, listen, read or click. No, journalists need to earn their audience’s trust before they do that.

Much of that trust belongs to the individual news organization, but another sizable portion is owned by the entire profession.

For example, when Gallup conducts its annual poll about the media, it lumps all newspapers, broadcasts and websites together under mass media. There is nothing wrong with that, but it means every journalist is responsible for maintaining that trust.

In September 2012, the number of Americans who distrusted mass media reached 60 percent, according to Gallup. That’s the lowest level of trust in over 15 years of available data. The last time the annual poll showed a majority of Americans trusting the media was 2006.

When people like Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke come along, it’s like bomb. It doesn’t just ruin their careers and reputations; it also hits journalism’s collective trust.

Take Stephen Glass, who was caught fabricating stories at The New Republic, as an example. He was not just found out; his rise and fall was also turned into a movie that starred Hayden Christensen.

Jayson Blair, who was caught fabricating stories at The New York Times, had his deceptions chronicled in a lengthy front-page story. The same goes for Jack Kelley with USA TODAY.

There’s nothing wrong with movies or explaining a plagiarist’s or fabricator’s deceptions, but these examples show how easy it is for the average person to start questioning and distrusting every story from The New York Times, USA TODAY or any other media organization.

Some people may offer excuses for what these people did. Perhaps the stress was too much for them? Maybe they couldn’t find the stories they once did? I don’t know why they did what they did, and frankly I don’t care. There is no excuse for deception.

When a person consciously steals another person’s work or invents their own reality, they do not just ruin their career. They damage the reputation of every journalist doing hard and honest work – from those covering the school board meetings to those in the middle of war zones.

I don’t think it’s possible to put a price on that damage.

So, why am I angry that the Knight Foundation gave Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to speak? It’s because I don’t understand why anyone would give money to someone who has already taken so much.

Additional Information:

“Knight CEO regrets paying plagiarist” http://hrld.us/Yj8SvX

Jonah Lehrer’s speech: http://bit.ly/Yj90M2

Jonah Lehrer’s latest tweet:

 

 

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