How doth the little crocodile

Interesting to turn from musings on how journalists might best pluck goodies from the strands of the wondrous world-wide webbing to see that some are finding it a highly nourishing activity already.

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Liz Hunt is a journalist who currently inhabits the waters of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and her information acquisition techniques appears to include, to one blogger at least, plagiarism:

Attempting to pass off someone else’s words or ideas as your own without proper attribution or acknowledgment. In both journalism and academia, this is akin to theft. Examples: Copying in whole or in part a published article or another student’s paper, borrowing language or concepts, lifting quotes or failing to use quotation marks where appropriate.

Journalistic plagiarism ranges from including one or two sentences copied from another newspaper without attribution, to more serious cases, such as copying an entire paragraph or story… The ease of copying electronic text from the Internet has lured a number of reporters into acts of plagiarism; column writers have been caught ‘cutting and pasting’ articles and text from a number of websites…

Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah wrote one of his characteristically wide-ranging, erudite and entertaining blog posts entitled Bags and Stamps. It weaves together a number of strands around the subject of those outsized, woven plastic, plaid-printed flimsily-zipped containers known in west Africa as “Ghana must go” bags. He calls them “an object lesson in the fluidity of ideas” in an essay which touches on, among many other things, the subject of plagiarism. That was on 13 April this year.

Some time later, on 2 June to be precise, Liz Hunt wrote a piece in the opinion section of the Daily Telegraph entitled Immigrants have bags of ambition. It is a short piece, however it seems that Koranteng’s ideas had been fluid enough to percolate into her small container. Let’s note at this stage that Koranteng’s blog states, at the bottom of each page, that the contents are copyright, a move which protects it under UK law. Also that the Telegraph group itself is no stranger to the importance of attribution as regards the re-use of their own content on the internet:

Please provide attribution to telegraph.co.uk in relation to the RSS feeds either in text form: “telegraph.co.uk” or by using the telegraph.co.uk graphic (included in the feeds).

The day after Liz Hunt’s article appeared Koranteng wrote a letter to the newspaper’s editors: A Plagiarism in Plaid in which he links to a detailed textual analysis of his essay next to her article. There has been an e-mail response from Liz Hunt in which she says:

I am happy to organise a link to your blog IF you will extend the same courtesy to my (unedited) defence against your accusation which I refute.

This he has done but there’s no sign of any link on the article back to his blog, and a week after the original mail there’s still no response from the editors. Incidents like this are important for a number of reasons. Firstly the obvious… plagiarism is against journalistic ethics; it brings discredit on both the individual and the organisation and damages their credibility and reputation. Trust and authenticity are qualities difficult to acquire and easy to lose but much prized by media organisations in the global proliferation of internet information sources. Accusations should be taken seriously by both journalists and editors.

Secondly it has implications for the future of information gathering and exchange on the internet. Mainstream media news organisations are increasingly alert to unacknowledged re-use of their material. They watch each others’ output for evidence of unacknowledged borrowings. News agencies similarly monitor media outlets to ensure their material appears with appropriate attribution. It is hardly surprising that individual writers do the same. The rules, such as they are, should apply to all.

Thirdly one of the great beauties of text on the internet is the ability to make hyperlinks. It enriches the experience of communication for both producers and consumers. It is the technology which is shaping the transmission and reception of information, away from a top-down model to a more collaborative and conversational paradigm.
Searching for “telegraph” and “plagiarism” on google brings up more than a quarter of a million hits including this previous example of stealing an entire blog post wholesale. However there are already two references to Koranteng’s post in the first ten results. Plagiarism or sloppy attribution, whatever one cares to call the importation of material, including an unusual spelling mistake, requires some kind of response.

Steve Buttry of the American Press Institute, whose article I linked to above, says the following:

I’m willing to call small-scale plagiarism something less damning and punish it with something less than the public flogging that has become standard.

But given those stakes and all that attention to the issue, I find it hard to believe a journalist would copy and paste from another source without first putting quotation marks and attribution into the story (as I did when I cut and pasted the plagiarism definitions above).

If someone pleads sloppy attribution, I would thoroughly research that reporter’s past stories and thoroughly vet future stories. I’m skeptical and I’m not cutting much slack.

Our credibility is precious and a sloppy journalist is hardly better than a crooked journalist.

I’m sure Koranteng doesn’t want a public flogging. Or damages. He just wants an explanation and an attribution from the editors. Is that so very, very difficult?

2 Replies to “How doth the little crocodile”

  1. A belated thanks, Dougie, for that suggestions. Still no word from the Telegraph editors as far as I know.

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