OPINION: So, we’ve all heard about plagiarism in one field or another. It seems like every other week students, writers, historians and songwriters are dogged with accusations of plagiarising the work of others. But disturbingly for journalists, there have been a number of cases in recent years of plagiarism among reporters, writes Sefiso Hlongwane.
Take Jonah Lehrer for instance, an American journo who allegedly self-plagiarised several works he submitted to The New Yorker, and closer to home, a Cape Times reporter, who was called out for lifting entire paragraphs (word for word) from an article that was published on the World Socialist website. These incidents are serious because they do not only damage the credibility of the journalists directly involved, but all journalists.
However, I’m convinced there’s an elephant in the room that is born out of many pressures journalists face – the overwhelming volume of writing incessantly pushed out into the digital space, the pressure on writers to feed a content beast that’s never satisfied, the diminishing forces that support professional writing.
And no, I’m not pointing my finger at the web media’s money-making methods. The internet preceded all of these changes, but it itself isn’t the cause.
What is plagiarism, exactly?
When a writer lifts thoughts – or even paragraphs – from an existing work, we call it plagiarism. But some news outlets do the same, and call it aggregation. So yes, let’s call them twins. Some people won’t agree that mere synopses qualify as plagiarism, because the one is not an exact copy of the other. Good journalism answers questions who, what, when and where. Great journalism adds the why. If the aggregated post snips the meaning around the first four Ws, how is that not in the spirit of plagiarism?
[Plagiarism: (n) the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own]
So, what is to blame for the copy and paste phenomenon among journalists?
Let’s go back 20 years. Although there’s no way of telling how prevalent plagiarism was back then, we do know that reporters spent most of their time out of the office to do research, REAL Wikipedia-free research on the ground. This is where ideas took shape. Talking and thinking, thinking and talking, before trying it out on the keyboard. That’s how writers should write.
Perhaps sometimes the work was good, and at times, mediocre. Sometimes, editors sent it back. However that’s not the point. Whatever the quality, the idea(s) belonged to the journo, informed by his or her reporting and research but grown in the writer’s head.
Therefore, it goes without saying that the methods used to groom writers/journalists to become original thinkers in the modern media environment are questionable. Quite frankly, it’s pretty safe to say they’re largely absent. This isn’t to condemn our research patterns as modern journalists who start their thinking with a Google search (and yes, thank goodness for Google). I mean, which modern wordsmith doesn’t check what others have written before he or she begins? Yeah, try a different planet.
So to answer the question: lack of originality is the culprit here, not so much plagiarism.
Originality is elusive today in every place that people write – not just journalism.
In our panic to ensure that we’re on par with a changing world, we’ve failed to point out new methods for originality, not just in journalism, but in academia, professional writing, book publishing, speech writing and politics. We’re mystified by the prospect of building a culture that breeds original thinking and writing in today’s digital world. Yet, we can look to writers who are successfully hitting the mark of originality and imitate their methods. Heck, we don’t even need to look beyond our borders, with writers such as Marianne Thamm and columnist, Jani Allen at our shores. Furthermore, we need to not only have a close look at the writer-editor relationship, but also, to the community of writers and thinkers, as well as to the very process that writers use to go from nothing to something.
If we’re going to solve the problem of unoriginal writing, we need to focus on the process of writing, instead of simply careening from one failure to another.
* Opinions expressed in posts published on The Media Online are not necessarily those of Wag the Dog Publishers or the editor but contribute to the diversity of voices in South Africa.
What do you think needs to be done to erase plagiarism from journalism? Share your thoughts in the comments.