Has the age of the internet made plagiarism easier? Media analyst and academic, Julie Reid, asks whether incidents of plagiarism are going largely unnoticed, due to the nature of the media industry and the influence of social media.
The recent case at Financial Mail
(FM), which led to the resignation of a journalist, brings the issue of journalists committing plagiarism into light. An article on rhino poaching was found to have portions directly lifted from an article in Bloomberg Businessweek. FM carried a prominent apology for the plagiarism but, despite that, this issue obviously damaged the credibility of one of South Africa’s top business magazines.
In the age of the internet and new media, plagiarism is scarily easy to pull off. Journalists have easy access to innumerable online sources and blog posts, which are instantly accessible. The instance of plagiarism at FM may be distressing, but fortunately it was picked up. Most of the time, copy that has been lifted from sources on the internet and published without a reference to the original source, goes unnoticed. Some blame this on the nature of the media industry.
For example, tight deadlines mean that journalists who are pushed for time are ‘forced’ into the practice, and newsroom pressures mean that instances of plagiarism slip past editors who don’t have the time to check up on whether each word of a journalist’s work is their own. Of course, under these circumstances, it’s impossible to determine precisely how widespread the problem really is.
At a recent conference in Johannesburg, I heard a journalist complain that colleagues spent too much time at their desks and not enough time out on the street doing the real and hard work of investigating, following up and chasing a story. But this takes time, something that understaffed and juniorised newsrooms can often not afford. A pressurised lack of time is not the friend of good judgement, meaning plagiarism can happen more easily and more often.
The Twitterisation of journalism poses a similar problem, when journalists quote tweeted sound-bites as fact. There is no doubt that Twitter has transformed the way we receive ‘news’. The instantaneity of this micro-blog site – accessible anywhere, at any time, thanks to smart devices and apps – is remarkable.
I learnt on Twitter, before I heard it anywhere else, that Gaddafi was dead. I first learnt on Twitter that Kader Asmal had passed on. I first learnt on Twitter that a man called Andries Tatane had been murdered by police in a small town called Ficksburg. Normally, I would have learnt these things only hours later when watching the news on television or reading the daily newspaper, so Twitter certainly trumps the ‘traditional’ media when it comes to the speed at which news moves.
But then again, I also ‘learnt’ on Twitter that Madiba had passed away when he hadn’t. More than once, actually. A few months ago a number of Tweeters even ‘learnt’ that I had been mugged on a street in London, when in reality I had been a victim of credit card fraud. I guess the reality of the matter was far less sexy than the mugging story.
A quick Google search will throw up a long list of websites that apparently provide guidelines to journalists on how to use Twitter for their work. I found one entitled ‘How we use Twitter for journalism’, from which I quote the following: “We’ve found lately… that Twitter itself is very useful for performing public interviews. By putting out single or multiple questions into our Twitter networks… we’ve gathered piles of rich research in far less time than it would have taken to try call people on the phone.”
As an expert researcher, I find that comment downright insulting. Responses that are limited to 140 characters can never be classified as ‘rich research’, no matter what way you look at it. The growing trend in journalism that relies on the instantaneity of new media, including Twitter, results in the danger of a corrosion of good hard-core investigative journalistic values.
The information gathered in 140 characters cannot replace the value gleaned from an in-depth personal interview, and journalists shouldn’t be fooled into believing that it can. The reliability and factual credibility of anything on Twitter should never be treated as solid by a journalist, until a thorough fact-check has been done.
On the flip side, a different kind of Google search will throw up a mass of results on how journalists can avoid plagiarism in the internet age. Today’s journalists would do well to take a look at some of these. In South Africa, our media freedom is currently under political threat, and any opportunity to damage the credibility of the media will be pounced upon by those who would like to see the institution of a Media Appeals Tribunal.
If journalists want to do their bit in preventing that from happening, the best place for them to start is with the basics. Get the job right, get the facts straight, don’t steal and don’t give critics of the media free ammunition.
Follow Dr Julie Reid on Twitter @jbjreid