There are a few things that journalists aren’t allowed to do.
Some of them are things nobody should really do, like accept a bribe. Other rules are just for reporters. Nobody else has to write under the standards of Canadian Press. Perhaps the most important thing we aren’t allowed to do is make up the news, or what could be considered equally as low, stealing somebody else’s news.
Even though these are things that everybody, reporter or not, is probably conscious of, some journalists just can’t stop from doing it, and considering the public nature of our work, it’s pretty unbelievable that anybody could ever not be discovered.
Most recently a writer for The New Yorker quit the publication after it came to light that a number of quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in a recently published non-fiction book were invented by the author himself.
These things don’t just show up at large publications; a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Alberta, The Anchor Weekly, was recently found to have copied a number of columns claiming them as his own. I have heard people talk about the pressures of deadlines leading to a reporter’s imagination turning to delusions that they could get away with something like copying someone else’s work or fabricating quotes, but I have never encountered such an idea myself because of a tight deadline.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article in The New Yorker on the subject of plagiarism and intellectual property rights and mentioned his own feelings when he discovered parts of his work had been used by a playwright for a play. He said he wasn’t as offended as he perhaps could have been, writing, “instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.”
Gladwell further explained that under copyright law, it’s not important that another works was copied but instead what was copied and how much.
Obviously, in the case of the Alberta columnist, how much was everything. He had copied and pasted entire columns from several different writers. It’s an inexcusable and lazy way to turn in a piece of work. I’ve been pretty stress free since 2003, and since probably before, so I don’t know what everybody gets so worked up about deadlines for.
The false quotes attributed to Bob Dylan are an equally egregious journalistic crime. There is no way anybody should be writing quotes for a subject, unless they work in public relations, or as it’s known in the journalism world, The Devil’s Playground.
People writing press releases do it all the time, and it’s OK for them, because they are just putting words in the mouths of their boss and everybody knows those quotes are made up. It’s expected that journalists have actually spoken to the person they are quoting, and after speaking to them, have done a perfect job of relaying the message to their readers.
One thing a college teacher of mine would repeat to his students is the only thing a journalist has is their credibility. Once it’s gone, it is very difficult to get it back, and when one reporter loses credibility, it hurts the reputation of all of us. Whether making up quotes or lifting complete stories from someone else, every time it happens, it leaves another chink in the media’s armor.