Wick Communications

Journalist or thief?

In Ethics on August 23, 2012 at 3:43 pm

There has been a lot of talk of late about the nature of journalism in a world in which so much is so easily cut from the Internet and pasted on to our own screens. Most recently, Fareed Zakaria – a well-known national reporter who writes for Time and appears on CNN – nearly derailed his career after borrowing (to use a polite word) the words of others and claiming those words as his own.

In a column appearing on Reuters, journalism professor Steven Brill compares the transgression to stealing someone’s TV set. He notes that it would be hard to suggest you merely made a mistake by stealing the television.

I don’t think Brill is being intellectually honest with that one. Here’s why: It’s usually much easier to steal intellectual property than it is to take something tangible.

And that is no excuse. I’m merely noting that cutting and pasting is ubiquitous and easy to do. Walking away with a flat-screen takes a little more elbow grease. That is part of the problem. There are all those words on the Internet. Some of them are arranged in ways we wish we’d thought of first. Every day I see something I wish I’d written.

Many of us also cut and paste things into some kind of master notes document as we research our own stories. We intend to use the work as background. I think it is possible (well, I sort of think it’s possible) to accidentally incorporate a snippet of someone’s work into our own work in this way.

Given the temptation, is it a good idea to read other stuff on the Web before producing our own prose on a subject? I think so. But it requires a level of professionalism and confidence in your own abilities. …

As usual, the New York Times’ David Carr makes some very good points in his take on the subject. For one thing, he notes the value of working for newspapers like ours:

The now ancient routes to credibility at small magazines and newspapers — toiling in menial jobs while learning the business — have been wiped out, replaced by an algorithm of social media heat and blog traction. Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you about a come-to-Jesus moment, when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it.

I once lost a job I dearly wanted because I had misspelled the name of the publisher of the publication I was about to go to work for. Not very smart, but I learned a brutal lesson that has stayed with me. Nobody ever did that for Mr. Lehrer, even after repeated questions were raised about his work.

Here’s some practical advice. If you ever cut and paste anything from the Web into a Word document, know what you are doing. You are in the process of appropriating someone else’s work. Be very careful with what comes next. Keep your research separate from your own work. Read everything twice before you turn it in; something should click when you read someone else’s paragraph in the middle of yours. And add value to the discourse. Merely regurgitating something you find elsewhere is not only stealing, it’s also boring.

And if you have questions about any of this, ask me and I’ll try to help you through it. Clay_lambert@wickcommunications.com

— Clay

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