Plagiarism hits papers big and small

By Gus Bode

From the public editor

Most writers and editors regard plagiarism as journalistic evil – our profession’s cardinal sin. They preach about how our credibility is splintered when a reporter, columnist or critic takes another writer’s words or ideas and presents them as his own. It’s the one line – in a profession that routinely tests boundaries – that is never supposed to be crossed.

But it is, and a lot more often than readers think. It happens at all levels, from high school newspapers to journalism’s venerable Old Gray Lady, The New York Times. And, unfortunately, it happens here at the Daily Egyptian – twice in the past year. One of our reporters was dismissed last spring for lifting material from a movie review by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. Another was let go just last week for the same offense. Of course, most readers, editorial page junkies aside, rarely learn of these violations.


There’s a reason for this and it can be summed up in one word:uncertainty. A cloud of vagueness and ambiguity hovers over plagiarism and the different aspects of it. The severity of the infraction, the identity of the offender, any extenuating circumstances influencing the incident – all of these fall under the umbrella of plagiarism.

So how do editors deal with it when it happens? Carefully and with extreme caution – the only way one can with what some extremists might call “journalistic treason.” But the truth is, most of those who make the mistake of plagiarizing don’t do so with benevolent intentions.

The reporter who was fired last week didn’t. The reporter who committed the exact same offense, Ebert and all, and lost his job last spring didn’t. They were college students simply striving to further their careers. Was splicing the work of perhaps the nation’s preeminent film reviewer into their writing the way to go about doing it? Certainly not, but does that mean they should be branded with the journalistic Scarlet Letter?

No. Every journalist, whether he’s Sam Somebody or Bob Woodward, wants his readers to view him as a good writer. Every journalist wants his colleagues to respect, or in some cases, envy him. Every journalist has read someone else’s writing and wished he could duplicate it. But most journalists resist that urge. For the two former Daily Egyptian employees, that urge was just too strong. Giving in to that urge cost them their jobs, and rightly so, but it shouldn’t cost them their careers.

Neither of these reporters, though each intentionally deceived his editors, did so simply because he could. Neither made up sources, events and locations like disgraced reporters Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. Neither got away with it on such a large scale as to earn his profession’s Holy Grail like one-time Pulitzer Prize winner Janet Cooke. They made a mistake, but does that mean they should never be allowed to work in this business again?

I don’t think so. They’ve already paid what any college journalism student knows is the ultimate price:expulsion from perhaps the only experience-building job opportunity available to them. Students who pursue careers in journalism aren’t like normal college students. Sure, potential employers glance at our grades, but whether or not we are hired rests solely on one thing:experience and proof of it.

Now the only proof those students had to offer is stained. I think that’s punishment enough.