There was a bit of an uproar on the plagiarism beat this week. Perhaps you heard.
This time the culprit (or victim, depending on your perspective, I guess) was Melania Trump. Her speech before the Republican National Committee on Monday was, in places, word-for-word the same as Michelle Obama’s speech before Democrats eight years earlier. I guess that means the two sides agree on more than they will admit.
If I were a plagiarist, I would call stealing words the unoriginal sin. Since I’m not, I’ll tell you that line comes from Poynter’s Peter Roy Clark. And sin it is. There is no greater sin in our business than taking passages from someone else and passing them off as your own. It’s unethical and it can get you fired.
Because it is so important, please take a moment to read Benjamin Mullin’s good and short explanation of plagiarism on the Poynter site. He walks us through the kinds of plagiarism and their definition.
Look: Journalists who take the words of others aren’t really journalists at all. It’s like buying the cookies at the grocery store, transferring them into your Tupperware and calling yourself a baker. It’s ludicrous and a lie. Let’s stipulate that we aren’t liars. …
There is, however, one pernicious way that the words of others can seep into your original work, and you should take the greatest care to be sure you don’t inadvertently make a mistake that will haunt you the rest of your career. I’m talking about “copy” and “paste.” I do it 50 times every day. This file to that one. It’s so easy. We do it to create spreadsheets and budgets and even to get our quotes from our notes to the final story.
But be careful. Here’s a tip. If you want to save that Wikipedia entry on the local state park so you can refer to is as you craft your story, don’t paste it onto the top of your story draft. Start a second document for notes and put it there with your quotes and other notes. Then judiciously transfer them over as you go. It won’t save you if you are dishonest, but it might keep you from hitting save and somehow including that stuff you copied from the Internet.
And if you are dishonest, know this: It’s painfully easy to get caught in 2016. There are free sites your editor can use to (ironically) copy and paste a slice of your work to see if it shows up elsewhere. And any editor worth his salt gets a whiff when your copy smells a bit too on the nose. If I read a writer every day, I will know if that writer suddenly has a new voice.
One of the lingering images from this year’s RNC will be that speech. The message will be forgotten. Mrs. Trump’s poise in delivery won’t matter. All you’ll remember are the jokes of late-night comedians. Don’t be the butt of that kind of joke.