The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Plagiarism in media: the garden variety

The Rake (Twin Cities equivalent of the Boston Phoenix and Washingtonian, I gather) has a piece on yet another instance of journalistic inspiration:
We were surprised to open up Monday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune to see Jon Tevlin's article on religion in the workplace. Surprised, because it was very similar to a feature story that was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine about a month ago. We'd noticed Russell Shorto's feature, not only because it was a compelling cover story, but because its main subject was a small bank in outstate Minnesota.

There's something about journalists which makes it almost impossible for them to admit inspiration from the work of colleagues. By comparison, academics are equally prone to professional jealousy, turf wars and personal vendettas - but at least there's a rule (however often flouted) that such inspiration must be referenced, and sanctions of some sort (on occasion) attach to those who break the rule.

Getting a journalist to fess up in print to getting his story idea from another hack is harder than wringing an apology from the Fonz: they just can't get the words out!

The prime example was the Toledo Blade and their Pulitzer-winning marquee series on the activities of the Tiger Force in Vietnam.

The Blade story was largely ignored elsewhere in the press; later, the New York Times ran a piece (reprint) on the subject, quoting from the Blade series, and, largely on the say-so of a student, rubbishing its discoveries as commonplaces (my piece of May 5 and one in the Nation).

If Isaac Newton had been a journalist, the Times would still be writing up gravity as if it had been discovered at West 43rd Street!

On a spectrum of dishonesty, this form of journalistic plagiarism hardly rates with the Times' decision to peddle Chalabi's WMD lies to avoid the crimp in the share price a war with USG might have led to [1]: but it makes up in sheer ubiquity.

Upside: a story that's been pinched should run less chance of containing factual errors. Do you think?

  1. My inference, of course: Sulzberger, Lewis and Keller (not forgetting Howell Raines) don't copy me in on their memos, strangely enough.


Regular readers will recognise that I myself pinched the Rake story from Romenesko - his sidebar, in this case. A working assumption that all media stories here are similarly sourced (directly or indirectly) would rarely send you astray.

Of course, I'm thinking he couldn't produce material with the depth and breadth of focus he does without one or two sources of his own, who tend not to get a namecheck.

As the man said, Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.

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