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What’s Your Excuse?

“I simply forgot I’d read that somewhere else”. An easy excuse for journalists who err on the side of plagiarism?

The dual plagiarism scandals that briefly hit the pause button on FareedZakaria’s musings online, in print and on TV, while bringing down the career of a rising star at The New Yorker, reflect the dual nature of the infraction in a 24/7 news cycle.

Zakaria is a highly respected journalist who has managed to do what few journalists can muster but deeply aspire to – build a brand. He is on Twitter and facebook, and gives speeches and writes books in addition to his journalistic duties. He may be affiliated with Time, Newsweek, CNN. Yet he stands apart – an expert in his own right. He plagiarised a historian inadvertently, it appears. After a thorough review of his work, Time, CNN and others reinstated Zakaria when they could not find more than that single episode of plagiarism.

Jonah Lehrer, who resigned from The New Yorker, legendary for its fact-checking process, was successfully building a brand. I am not familiar with his work, but many describe him as that rare breed of journalist who can write and speak about science simply. Funnily enough, aside from copying his own works and handing it out to numerous editors for publication in various avenues, Lehrer simply made up quotes from Bob Dylan.

The two scandals have prompted endless analysis, and because the timing of the scandalsare so close together, many have conflated the violations of Zakaria and Lehrer.

In my mind the two are separate. Zakaria claims that he confused his notes and in doing so failed to correctly attribute the work of another.

Lehrer, on the other hand, had a pattern of self-plagiarism, topped by pure fabrication. New York Times’ David Carr wrote an astute analysis of Lehrer’s failure, attributing both his crime and being caught to the insatiable quality of the Web. In a column entitled ‘Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth’, Carr writes:

The self-cleaning tendencies of the Web got credit for unearthing the misconduct in the first place. Then again, the Web’s ferocious appetite for content – you are only as visible as your last post, as Clay Shirky recently said to me – probably had something to do with why Mr. Lehrer tried to feed the beast with retreads and half-baked work.

Read this part again – “You are only as visible as your last post”.That has special meaning to reporters/bloggers like me. In my current job, I am required to have a minimum of 12 posts per week. And for many bloggers, that is actually a low number.So, in trying to feed the beast, our processes become sloppy. And maybe the brain stops functioning the way it should.

Now, I don’t fear that I will turn into Lehrer, Jayson Blair or even Stephen Glass (for those who haven’t seen the movie Shattered Glass, I highly recommend it).But an error, similar though not exactly like the one Zakaria has claimed to have succumbed to, has recently plagued me.

In June 2011, I had the unhappy task of writing a profile about someone who declined an interview. The subject was Omar Ishrak, who at the time was named as the new CEO of Medtronic, a huge, Fortune 500 company that makes pacemakers and other medical devices.I began combing the Web and ended up writing an aggregated post. One of the descriptions that I referred to was drawn from a book that Jack Welch, famed CEO of General Electric wrote called,Jack: Straight from the Gut.

Ishrak was hired by Welch to run GE’s non-descript ultrasound equipment business and ended up making it obscenely profitable and a market leader. Welch described Ishrak as someone who had “ultrasound running through his veins.” And that is exactly how I wrote the story.

Except that a few months later I completely forgot about Welch. I was in advanced pregnancy when Ishrak granted me an exclusive interview. I wrote four stories following the interview and one portrayed my impressions of the high-profile CEO. In closing I joked about how ultrasound runs in his veins, because as I was leaving Ishrak asked me about the baby and whether I had done all the ultrasounds and taken the pictures. I wrote that phrase – ultrasound runs in his veins – without a single quotation mark, without any reference to Mr. Jack Welch.My brain must have liked the phrase so much when I first encountered it that it blocked out any reference to an outside source.

A month or so ago, I discovered this myself while doing some research on stories I had written. Of course, I went into our publishing tool and added the attribution.

The peril of inadvertent plagiarism is real. And all the more likely in today’s world, given the constant need to refer to the plethora of information being generated on the Web, combined with the volume requirements.Plagiarism is a human reality that has endured through the centuries. It affects the mighty – Zakaria – and the petty – yours truly.

The only defence is eternal vigilance.

 

Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/timmy/4123386002/]

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