By David Sheets | August 16th, 2012
(Reprinted with permission from dksheets’s posterous blog.)
Sorry, Steve, but I disagree.
Most journalists don’t lie on purpose.
Steve Penn’s case may put a magnifying glass to the problem. About a month ago, Penn, who had written for the Star since 1980, lost his job due to alleged chronic lifting of content from news releases and passing off that content as original writing. At least two examples were caught by editors and were cited by the Star when it announced his firing, though the newspaper says it found “more than a dozen” violations going back to 2008.
You’d think Penn would be contrite and apologetic, as expected when one’s professional credibility is questioned. (After all, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria was, after admitting to plagiarizing from another writer for a magazine column, but then undermined his sincerity by saying the infraction was a “mistake” and a “lapse,” as if briefly forgetting that plagiarism was wrong.)
And plagiarism is a harsh charge — among the worst in Penn’s profession; the stigma attached usually hangs on into a subsequent career. Instead, the veteran writer has sued his former employer’s owner, McClatchy Newspapers, for punitive damages totaling a minimum of $25,000, claiming his reputation was harmed because he was held out as an example to account for behavior considered acceptable to Star staffers and condoned by its supervisors.
His rationale, as stated in the lawsuit, is that lifting content word for word from news releases has become “widespread practice in journalism,” because public relations pros craft the releases with that in mind, carefully considering even the tone and theme of their pieces when writing for media outlets.
If journalists copy and paste, all the better for public relations, the theory goes, because it shows the PR folks that they have delivered their messages effectively.
This theory is persuasive, and pervasive. A writer for the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher, Allan Wolper, who interviewed me last week about Penn’s case, even chuffed a little when I dismissed Penn’s rationale as selfish.
I accept Wolper’s thinly veiled doubt that Penn’s was unique behavior. Print journalists — still the primary sources of the credible news circulated on the Web — endure withering pressure to produce more and better news stories despite diminishing newspaper staffs and resources. And with the flurry of news releases falling daily amid compounded print and electronic deadlines, the allure of lifting a sentence here or a paragraph there to save time can be irresistible.
Because nobody’s going to notice, right?
But what separates professional journalists from wannabes, poseurs and pundits in large part is a willpower forged by the urge to do what’s correct and proper by their publications, their profession, and their communities. This willpower finds support in ethical principles adapted to protect all journalists and advanced by the Society of Professional Journalists, and in Penn’s case the policy elucidated by the Star’s Code of Ethics, which states rather clearly that plagiarism “includes the wholesale lifting of someone else’s writing, research or original concepts without attribution.”
(As an aside, at every newspaper I’ve worked, I’ve had to sign a form saying I had read and understood the company’s list of behavioral policies before they agreed to employ me. The form was among the sheaf of papers the personnel office insisted I fill out before they put me on the payroll. I’m guessing the Star has similar forms — and one of them has Penn’s name on it.)
Of course, in the broader communications world, upstart media, strenuously attuned to Web metrics for validation, may lack a list of policies, let alone the circumspection professional journalism demands, so they feel free to replicate pre-packaged material without compunction, or revise it out of context, unfettered by editors back-checking their work. At some point though, their credibility, and maybe their careers, will hinge on whether they borrow or create. Penn and Zakaria are learning that now.
Policies and codes aside, journalists are responsible as writers and authors to be true to their audiences and themselves. Sure, PR people may not mind seeing their words copied without attribution, but journalists are not supposed to let someone else’s voice supplant their own. The sure course away from journalistic credibility lies in ignoring that.
So, to anyone who choses to plagiarize another’s work, then gets caught, understand this: Nobody made you do it.
David Sheets is a former content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a candidate for Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.