Plagiarism and attribution

This section addresses these ethical questions:

The century-old Society for Professional Journalists has a simple statement on plagiarism in its Code of Ethics: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

Agreeing to that ethical demand is much more nuanced than the instruction, as evidenced by this response to a Politico tweet by the late New York Times reporter David Carr. Carr responded with a link to his own previously published story on the subject:

The Golden Rule

Plagiarism is traditionally defined as taking someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. In journalism, it is considered one of the primary sins of the profession. Many journalists have lost their jobs or faced legal action for lifting others’ writing or other production.

On what Carr deems ‘class,’ that is, giving appropriate credit to the originator of a piece, The New York Times has struggled, according to its own public editor. In a piece titled “Giving Credit: A Work in Progress at The Times”, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan delineates cases when The New York Times used other people’s work as a springboard for its own. Sullivan wrote:

The Times takes pride in its original reporting, and excels at it. What it doesn’t always excel at is giving full credit to the work of other news organizations.

In your own work, consider the Golden Rule–Do unto others as you would have them do unto you–when assessing whether to credit another news outlet’s work. A similar consideration holds when sharing photos, updates or tweets on social media.

If the original work is incorrect in some way, having credited the origin also allows distance from the mistake should it need to be corrected.

News organizations follow a range of practices in attributing to other news organizations: linking directly to the original story, attributing by name to the journalist and organization, attributing only what they can’t “re-report,” contacting many or all of the same sources to provide a story that is neither plagiarized nor original, or vague attribution such as “media reports,” “was reported” or “reportedly.”

In general, erring on the side of directly crediting the source is safer, ethically and legally, than the reverse.

The most common excuse for plagiarism is that in working with research or background material, the journalist got confused as to what was his own and what came from someone else. Sometimes journalists say they intended to add attribution or a link, but they forgot to do so in the editing process.

To the extent these excuses are honest, there are effective ways to prevent this problem. Journalists should keep background information in a file, or electronically in a different color, so it’s obvious what came from somewhere else.

There are also anti-plagiarism programs that can search the Web for similar wording; finished stories can be run through such a program to determine what wording may not be original.

In the digital era–and with the general popularity of cut-and-paste research–questions have been raised about whether there are different degrees of plagiarism. Is all plagiarism the same? Can plagiarism sometimes be a minor infraction? Is “patch writing” resulting from cutting and pasting as serious as lifting hundreds of words? Can rewriting the work of others be considered “creative work” in itself?

Some believe that, for example, in compiling a quick listicle (“10 Things To Know About Mauritania”), it’s not a major sin to take some basic information from another source without substantially rewriting it. (Wikipedia, for instance, says its material can be reused or redistributed by anyone without charge. But suppose a journalist imports wording for a listicle from a copyrighted publication?

Others, including most large news organizations, believe any plagiarism is too much. They do not carve out exceptions for listicles or Wikipedia; they believe that any unattributed copying of others’ phrasing is a fundamental violation of journalistic ethics.

Some digital news organizations, in an attempt to make attribution an essential part of their workflow, require staff members to use hyperlinks to their digital sources, even competitors. One issue that arises here, however, is whether it’s enough to simply provide a hyperlink to show that information came from another source (e.g., “China’s rising population”) or if it’s also essential to name the original source in the text itself (e.g., “China’s rising population, according to U.N. figures”).

Each news organization must make its own determination about how it will handle instances of plagiarism–bearing in mind that whatever its own standards, there still may be legal exposure if its staff is viewed as stealing content from others.

News releases

As busy as journalists are, it may be tempting to pass off writing from a news release as their own. While sources of the news releases may, in fact, be pleased to see their words replicated, journalism means more than parrotting someone else’s words. Making clear what information comes directly from a release and what is original reporting avoids that pitfall. If you regard attribution as a matter of transparency with readers, rather than simply a courtesy to other journalists, it’s obvious why many news organizations require attribution of press releases.

“Plagiarizing” from yourself or your publication

Search for “self plagiarism” and you will find more questions than answers. Journalism’s big thinkers remain undecided on whether self-plagiarism is a crime without a victim. Gawker has offered this advice:

A good rule of thumb for writers who are concerned about whether they’re reusing too much old material is to simply ask themselves, “Would my editor be okay if I told him how much of this is reused?” The answer will be “no,” so then you can stop reusing things, you lazy bum.

Beyond that internal discussion, there is a legal discussion to be had regarding copyright–if your words for one publication are owned by that publication, you may have little right to use them for another publication.

Beyond that, there are other questions worth considering:

Each journalist may have different gut feelings on the answers. Discuss your standards with your superiors and your colleagues. And when in doubt, give credit to the source.

The main author of this section is Rachel E. Stassen-Berger of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It reflects her analysis and not that of her employer. Other material is by Thomas Kent and Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University.

Additional resources
“Telling the Truth and Nothing But,” Digital Newsbook, National Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication
Buttry, Steve, “How many identical words amount to plagiarism?” The Buttry Diary, December 11, 2014
“Attribution, quotation marks and links: They turn plagiarism into research,” Steve Buttry, The Buttry Diary, August 20, 2014
“Journalists need to use links to show our work,” Steve Buttry, The Buttry Diary, April 5, 2013
“A quiz to teach journalists about plagiarism and attribution,” Steve Buttry, The Buttry Diary, February 7, 2012
Wasserman, Edward, “Why news organizations need to credit each other,” ewasserman.com, February 10, 2014
Wasserman, Edward, “The Plagiarism Panic” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2012
Wasserman, Edward, “What’s wrong with ‘plagiarizing’ you own work?” The Huffington Post, July 5, 2012