Cardinal Sins

Plagiarism: Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism — using someone else’s words as if they were your own — is, simply stated, stealing. It can take many forms. At its worst, plagiarism can be copying and pasting an article off the Internet and slapping your own byline at the top. Or subtler: Lifting a quote from a wire service story or taking credit for another person’s idea.

Because of the Internet, plagiarism is easier today than ever before; it’s also easier to catch. To avoid charges of plagiarism, a writer must paraphrase another’s words and state the source(s); credit another person’s ideas and theories; and cite any facts that are not commonly known. Be sure to label your notes carefully when consulting material in a library or online. It is possible to inadvertently plagiarize a work this way; if you do, you suffer the consequences nevertheless.


Original passage: “In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit. (From Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand.)

The following is plagiarism:

“The biggest newsmaker in 1938 — measured in newspaper column inches — wasn’t the president, nor was it Adolf Hitler or the pope. It wasn’t Babe Ruth or any Hollywood actor either. Why, it wasn’t even human. It was a racehorse named Seabiscuit.”

Why is this plagiarism? Because the writer has taken the spirit of Hillenbrand’s passage and simply reordered a few sentences and substituted words — including a relatively obscure fact about more newspaper column inches being dedicated to Seabiscuit than any human in 1938. What’s more, the writer didn’t credit Hillenbrand’s work.

Here is an acceptable paraphrase of this same passage:

“In 1938, the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit was so famous he accounted for more newspaper column inches than the president, pope and any Hollywood film star, according to Laura Hillenbrand in Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

Or simply, Seabiscuit was extremely popular in 1938. There’s no need to cite Hillenbrand because this is a commonly known fact that cannot be reasonably disputed.

Here is another example:

Original passage: “Jaithirth ‘Jerry’ Rao was one of the first people I met in Bangalore — and I hadn’t been with him for more than a few minutes at the Leela Palace hotel before he told me that he could handle my tax returns and any other accounting needs I had — from Bangalore. No thanks, I demurred. I already have an accountant in Chicago. Jerry just smiled. He was too polite to say it — that he may already be my accountant, or rather my accountant’s accountant, thanks to the explosion in the outsourcing of tax preparation. ‘This is happening as we speak,’ said Rao, a native of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, whose Indian firm, MphasiS, has a team of Indian accountants able to do outsourced accounting work from any state in America and the federal government. ‘We have tied up with several small and medium-sized CPA firms in America.'” (From The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas L. Friedman.)

The following is plagiarism:

“India has become a major player in outsourced accounting, and, for all you know, someone in Bangalore might very well be crunching your tax returns — on behalf of your accountant. ‘This is happening as we speak,’ said Jaithirth Rao, whose firm, MphasiS, has ‘tied up with several small and medium-sized CPA firms in America.'”

It is unacceptable because the way it is written, it appears the writer interviewed Rao and got that original quote, when it originated in Thomas Friedman’s book.

Another example:

Original passage: “The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, a Tuesday, the most disastrous session on Wall Street to date in a month of turmoil.” (The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan.)

The following is not plagiarism: “The stock market crashed on Tuesday, October 29, 1929, following a month of economic jitters.”

It is acceptable because the day the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression, is a well-known fact.

Additional sticking points:

It can be tempting to lift highly technical passages (say, a description of BMW’s braking system or an in depth analysis of how Google’s search engine actually works). Don’t do it. Instead, find a way to describe these things in your own words. This also goes for company descriptions used in press releases. For example, HP describes itself as “a technology solutions provider to consumers, businesses and institutions globally.” You might describe it as “a seller of a broad range of technology products and services, including PCs, printers, and IT infrastructure.”

The bottom-line rule of attribution is: When in doubt, cite the source of your information. You can’t go wrong then.

Fabrication: Making up sources or information in an assignment is a serious ethical violation. In the real world, it could lead to immediate dismissal and the end of your career. In the late 1990s Stephen Glass created in part or whole cloth some two dozen stories he published in The New Republic, Harpers and Rolling Stone, which led to one of the biggest journalism scandals in history. Jayson Blair of The New York Times plagiarized and fabricated sources and material, which became a huge embarrassment to the Times, which is still recovering. Both are out of the profession.

Doctoring photos or video: It is not permissible to doctor or manipulate photos for the purpose of misleading, although is all right to crop pictures or enhance clarity if blurry. With video it is OK to edit footage but not all right to alter subjects’ appearance or likewise distort reality. Increasingly photo manipulation is being used as an explanatory technique: Putting George Bush’s head onto a wrestler’s body for satiric purposes, for example. This is acceptable only if there will be no confusion between the photo manipulation — satiric or otherwise — and reality.

Fictional devices: Names, dates and places should never be altered in any story, even to protect a source’s identity. If publishing those facts could lead to retribution against a source, or if compassion dictates omitting these facts from a story, they should simply be cut (with an explanation to the reader). Composites, which are characteristics and histories of multiple characters blended into one, should never be used.

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