We are all plagiarists now

Dutch daily De Volkskrant yesterday joined the illustrious ranks of the New York Times, Harvard Law School and the University of Amsterdam – not to mention its fellow national newspaper Trouw with the revelation that one of its employees had committed serial plagiary.

Collective gasp

As you might expect at a PR agency staffed largely by ex-journalists, a collective gasp went up in Stampa’s newsroom-style Amsterdam office when the story emerged, swiftly followed by a deluge of instant, multi-coloured comment.

The angles are indeed many and various. And the story will no doubt be fully dissected, disputed and debated by the Dutch press – not to mention the unforgiving tribunal of social media – in the hours, days and weeks to come.

What does it say about the newspaper’s controls and mean for its reputation? Didn’t alarm bells sound over a cub reporter who poured out reams of stories in such a short period? Isn’t this primarily a personal tragedy for the ambitious young man whose name, reputation and career could be tainted for life? Don’t the journalism schools teach ethics, let alone basic tenets?

Where do you draw the line?

But there are other questions too. Where does plagiarism start and finish? Where do or should you draw the line? Don’t we all plagiarise to some extent, almost every time we write something? Even at Reuters in the pre-internet, pre-control-C days, we sometimes used to joke about our “microwave journalism”. It’s especially easy in these days of cut and paste. And even harder to detect when you lift a passage in one language and translate it into another.

“What I found is that when you cross the line once it becomes easier and easier to cross it again,” Jayson Blair said in a 2014 interview, 11 years after he plagiarised and invented scores of stories for the New York Times.

‘Pressure to publish’

What seems to link the disgraced NYT and Volkskrant reporters, as well as academics such as the Amsterdam and Harvard professors also found to have plagiarised in recent years, is ‘pressure to publish’. Academia has its own dynamic, but as newsrooms shrink, the ‘space to fill’ balloons and reporters have to compete against every other news organisation in the world and even every person with a smartphone, how surprised should we be at excesses like this?

In its copious account of the deception in May 2003, the New York Times wrote of Jayson Blair (forgive the cut and paste, but at least the source is clearly stated):

“His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer – which allowed him to blur his true whereabouts – as well as round-the-clock access to databases of news articles from which he stole.”

I’m not sure many journalists in 2015 would consider a phone, laptop or Google “tools of deceit”. In fact, they’re tools of the trade for almost anyone who uses social media. To paraphrase (or pilfer?) the famous expression: we are all plagiarists now.

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