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What a plagiarism epidemic says about the decline of print

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Updated: It seems a week can’t go by without a new incident of plagiarism by some prominent journalist, and this week it’s Margaret Wente, a star columnist with one of Canada’s national newspapers, who has been found guilty of using content from other journalists and academics without crediting them. As others have in similar cases, Wente says it was a simple mistake, although she has apparently been disciplined (in some unknown fashion) by the paper’s editor-in-chief. But there is a much larger point here than just the fact that journalists can get sloppy, and that the internet is a fact-checking machine unlike any other: Just like Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria before her, Wente’s behavior — and the newspaper’s lackluster response to it — speaks volumes about the flaws of print and the corresponding benefits of online media and journalism.

As I’ve argued before, part of the problem with print media — and something that often spills over into the digital versions of those media — is that it is incapable of providing the kind of credit that the web can when a writer is making use of someone else’s thoughts or words. A simple hyperlink or two would arguably have made Wente’s behavior, and that of many others, much less open to criticism. But the reality is that there are also deeper problems than just a failure to link.

Summarizing content without credit is a losing strategy

One of those problems is that the job of newspaper columnists — and analysts like Zakaria, and pop-culture interpreters like Jonah Lehrer — has always been to take in content from elsewhere and synthesize it (or remix it, to use a popular metaphor) and then hopefully make a point of some kind. Doing this actually made some sense when print newspapers and TV shows were the primary method of information delivery, but rehashing what a couple of other columnists or pundits said without giving them credit simply doesn’t work as well any more — too many people notice.

Full disclosure: I should note that I am about as conflicted as any writer could possibly be about this case: I worked at the Globe and Mail for more than 15 years, as a reporter and a columnist (as well as the paper’s first social-media editor), and was originally hired by none other than Margaret Wente, who was then running the newspaper’s business section. I have worked closely with her and Sylvia Stead — who is now the paper’s public editor, and was the first one to respond to the accusations — and with John Stackhouse, who is now the editor-in-chief and has written a public statement saying that Wente’s behavior did not meet the newspaper’s standards.

To sum up for those who haven’t been following it, Wente has been accused a number of times over the past several years of using content from other journalists (including some from the New York Times), and one case in particular from 2009 blew up this week — after a blog post by Carol Wainio, a frequent critic of Wente’s, got picked up by media industry observers and was circulated on Twitter. According to Wainio’s research, which others have verified, the columnist used a number of verbatim phrases from a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper (which is owned by the Globe’s main competitor, Postmedia) as well as an academic.

The newspaper was silent on the charges for some time, until public editor Sylvia Stead wrote what some critics have complained was a mealy-mouthed response, in which she referred to Wainio dismissively as “an anonymous blogger” (even though Stead has had numerous interactions with her in the past over similar issues) and downplayed most of the errors that now appear to have been made. After attacks on the Globe from a number of sources — including the former chairman of the journalism school at Ryerson University in Toronto — the paper published the response from Stackhouse (which referred to “taking appropriate action”) as well as a column from Wente that stopped short of being an outright apology but attempted to provide an explanation for her behavior.

The media playing field has been levelled

In many ways, the nature of the Globe’s response has probably fanned the flames of criticism rather than dampened them: not surprisingly, the column from Wente is defensive, but it and the responses from Stead and Stackhouse also fail to deal with the fact that there have been other similar incidents in the past, some of which appear to have been brushed under the carpet. The general attitude seems to be shock that anyone would listen to a mere blogger on such matters, rather than trusting the Globe to do what is right — a classic response from a traditional media gatekeeper that doesn’t realize the playing field has been levelled.


As Craig Silverman at Poynter notes, this kind of response does little to help build or maintain (or repair) the trust that readers have in the paper, something that is of crucial importance in an era when readers have dozens, if not hundreds, of other sources they can go to.

I wonder what the New York Times might have done in a case like Wente’s, given that the paper’s new public editor has been extremely quick to jump on criticism of the paper’s decisions and provide explanatory posts or even just discuss the concerns that readers have, whether they are mentioned on Twitter or elsewhere. This is not the kind of thing that newspapers have ever been good at, but they are going to have to develop those skills if they wish to survive, let alone grow or prosper. A trusted relationship with readers is one of the only strengths they have.

Like every other traditional media outlet, they are going to have to get used to the idea of no longer being on a pedestal, no longer being the default choice for content — and no longer able to get away with simply rewriting what others have said and passing it off as original thought. As Greg Beato at Reason notes, we are living in a “golden age for fact checking,” when anyone with a web browser can check any statement against most of recorded history, and that imposes a duty on media entities that goes beyond the simple admission of error. Transparency may not be pleasant, but it is the only realistic option available.

Update: Sylvia Stead has written a new blog post about lessons the Globe and Mail could learn from the Wente case, including her own admission that she should have dug deeper into the complaints against the columnist before responding. The editor’s note on the original column has also been updated to reflect the unattributed use of the Ottawa Citizen writer’s material.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Aih and Dr. Dawg’s Blog

17 Responses to “What a plagiarism epidemic says about the decline of print”

  1. txpatriot

    New media = good
    Old media = bad

    I wrote in six words the gist of what Matthew wrote in 1,200 in yet another in a seemingly endless stream of old media bashing columns.

    Whatever will he write about when newspapers are dead and gone?

  2. Matthew sets up a straw man of sorts, given that Lehrer’s bad behavior was being done online as well as in print. And, arguably, per other commenters noting the issue goes back to the 1880s with the NYT in some ways, this isn’t going to change.

  3. But Matthew, isn’t not being on a pedestal exactly why journalism has fallen so far, so fast? Didn’t a platform used to be a hard earned thing, and integrity the price of keeping it? I’m sorry, but I have to say that the ‘democratizing of media’ is the problem, here, not the solution. I can’t believe the high dudgeon online over this issue, much of it from the same tribe that has been digitally helping itself to other people’s work without pay or attribution for years and claiming it as a sovereign right. The same tribe that defends free speech as the right to say whatever the hell you want, whether it’s true or not, just because you can. If there were ever a “let he who is without sin…” moment in modern life, this one has surely been it.

    • I agree with some of your points but…

      “Democratizing of media” is the fact regardless of judging it as a problem or solution. It’s happened and is only accelerating. McLuhan: The Medium IS the message. With content being more democratic it behooves the writers to act with integrity. Unfortunately, behoovement is rarely enough to motivate pepole to act with complete integrity.

      The internet/mobile medium is very liberated in terms of democratic input of talent but the output depends on your ISP and which nation you live in.

  4. You no longer have reporters, you have repeaters.

    The new game began in Canada on Aug. 27, 1980. “Black Wednesday”, as it became known, was the day newspaper corporations across the country colluded to swap properties and kill competition. The Ottawa Journal and the Winnipeg Tribune folded, and Vancouver Province’s owner, Southam, bought the Vancouver Sun. The two had been in bed together since 1950s via a press-and-profit-sharing agreement at Pacific Press that killed the third paper and defended against upstarts.

    Suddenly competition for readers was no longer necessary; these publicly traded corporations now focused on advertiser-pleasing copy as the technique for pulling more ads.

    At least Postmedia has an understandable reason for changing standards: they’re legally obligated to maximize profits. But the fact that the commercial-free public broadcaster also ignores the public good suggests that there is a new definition of journalism.

  5. Yellow Journalism

    Asked to give a toast before the prestigious New York Press Club, John Swinton, the former Chief of Staff and editorial writer at the New York Times, made this candid confession at a banquet held in his honor in 1880, nearing the end of his career:

    “There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with.

    Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.

    The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell the country for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press. We are the tools and vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men.

    We are intellectual prostitutes.”

    [It’s worth noting Swinton was called “The Dean of His Profession” by other newsmen, who admired him greatly]:

  6. Jan Wong, once one of Canada’s most feared reporters, took on a powerful corporation, the Globe and Mail newspaper, which fired her after she suffered a major depressive episode. Despite the terrible toll the disease took on her, she refused to capitulate to what she deemed a wrongful dismissal.

    Eventually, she won an undisclosed cash settlement. Wong also spurned her former employer’s demand she sign a gag order.

    And this month, she exposes the sordid details of her mental-health ordeal at the Globe and Mail in a compelling and sometimes amusing new self-published book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness.

  7. One of the faculties of the human soul is: imagination.

    Plagiarism has its origin in people no longer being taught how to exercise this faculty.

    The imagination switches off (to varying degrees when one watches TV, a movie or a soul saturates its intellect with ‘media’.

    The imagination is not dissimilar to the physical components of our bodies. It needs exercise.

    As my writing teach said: “If you’ve seen it in print, don’t use it!” and “Get rid of cliches!”

    I was going to set up the Jack Kerou-WHACK-OFF beat-the-meat, non-BEAT-GEN literary academy, but I don’t have time to teach people who are unwilling to learn.

    “You can’t educate stoopid.”

    I will never be a journalist for two reasons: 1 I’m too good a writer. 2. I can’t dumb-down enough to write tabloid trash.

    Old Man Orgasms.

  8. Interesting.

    As your post suggests, this issue probably happened just as often, if not moreso in the past, but we have better tools for catching people these days.

    More radically, I wonder whether or not the issue matters at all. Relationships around “content” are changing. Is the connection between content and its origin sacrosanct? Does it matter who originated the content? Obviously, that used to be a meaningful question, but I wonder how long it will continue to be. The concept of, “there are no new ideas”, in the context of an unending explosion of cataloged data makes me think that curation may be even more important that creation. This notion will probably be decried or dismissed, but I think there is something to it.

    • Andrew Poole

      Agreed. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Elvis, the rolling stones, led zeppelin all ‘stole’ their blues and soul from the blacks. George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ suit was a harbinger of where we’re at (shameful that he lost). What was good for Mick & Keef was not good enough for Verve’s bittersweet symphony. The medium is the message (copyright M. McLuhan). Last lawyer standing wins.

  9. the times they are assangein’
    Downside is that the team/ resource aspect of journalism will die w newsprint. Would Woodward and Bernstein have ferreted out Nixon in internet age i.e. without Bradlee and the Post to lend support gravitas? Probably not. So the paradox is that increased fact checking will probably be much broader but far shallower.