Pick the sin: plagiarism or bad reporting

Pick the sin: plagiarism or bad reporting

: The other day, another numb-nutty journalist was fired for plagiarism, which is about the stupidest sin to commit (not the accidental repetition of a good phrase — these days, we call those memes — but the wholesale lifting of hunks of someone else’s work); it’s especially stupid in this day of online news and search. Whenever somebody gets caught their their hand on the control-V keys, they get fired quickly and publicly. OK.

But it occurs to me that the punishment for getting a story completely wrong — not Jayson-Blair-pull-the-fiction-of-of-your-ass wrong but wrong-headed, incomplete, badly reported, factually messy — is nowhere near as severe.

The message that gives the public: The press cares more about protecting the ownership of content than about getting stories right.

Now that’s not only heresy, it’s a wrong and rather ridiculous way to state the proposition and I know it: plagiarism is obvious theft with an easy standard to identify and writing a wrong-headed or sloppy story is not an easy standard to agree to. So I’m not saying that everybody who has a bad-story day should be shown the door (in fact, we need to make reporters bolder and more transparent and more conversation, not more timid and boring and faux objective). I’m simply saying that the contrast in the press’ treatment of each sin says something to the public. That’s all.

  • http://www.felixsalmon.com Felix

    The public might be stupid, Jeff, but they’re not that stupid. It seems to me that your post can be paraphrased: “Me, I’m sophisticated enough to understand that people can easily get fired for doing something wrong, while it’s much harder to fire someone for doing something badly. But the public? They might not understand that.” Given that most of the public have jobs, and that anybody with a job understands the enormous difference, in terms of likelihood of keeping your job, between breaking the rules and simply making a mistake while doing the job, I’m afraid I cannot agree that the present state of affairs gives the public some bizarre and false insight into, um, copyright protection, or somesuch.

  • http://michaelzimmer.blogspot.com/ Michael Zimmer

    Could it be this dilemma?
    - Plagarism is objective: either you cut/paste someone else’s work, or you didn’t.
    - Getting a story “right,” that is, determining if it might be “wrong-headed, incomplete, badly reported, factually messy” is subjective.
    Objective decisions are always much easier to make & justify.

  • http://www.freerepublic.com Steve Reston

    What was it like getting your ass handed to you by Alterman?

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Felix: Of course, the public isn’t stupid. I’m not talking about their reaction and more about our standards in journalism and the signals we send by how strongly we react to bad work. In other words: If the guys at 60 Minutes II should have been fired, shouldn’t they have been fired before the task force said so? If they were print reporters who lifted text, they would have been beheaded in a second. But in this case, it took a task force to say they messed up a story. Maybe not the best concrete example but there’s contrast there in how we act in media. Meanwhile, we can see online that the audience reacts quite differently.
    Steve: I wouldn’t know.

  • alkali

    For what it’s worth, I agree completely with the proprietor on this one. To my mind, a report of plagiarism is like a report that a journalist has been stealing office supplies: it’s not admirable conduct, to be sure, but I’m not sure what harm there is to me as a reader. (Indeed, if the plagiarist is so confident that someone else’s text is better than anything he/she could write, presumably I’m better off for having read the misappropriated material!)

  • Franky

    We despise the theif because it strikes at the heart of what we do each day – we think of new stories, go out report it and then present the story. The thief bypasses all that labor and simply repeats the end result of someone else’s hard work. I don’t really see it as important whether non-journalists understand this or not (thinking longer on this, surely the only people who would fail to understand this would be those who have nothing but contempt for the profession).
    “The press cares more about protecting the ownership of content than about getting stories right.”
    Jeff, you keep on claiming your press credentials then speak about the media as if you were some law professor. This could have been the time to explain the nerves you got when you published a big story you knew would be attacked, but you were confident in the reporting that lead to it, the nerves all journalists feel when their credibility is on the line. But no, some general half-assed slating of all the media again. Of course that position would be more admirable if you didn’t jump at any chance to appear in the absolute worst part of the modern media – the bobbing head programs.

  • Anna

    Nice post.
    The pattern you describe matches what happens in press coverage of politics – they don’t nail you on the big stuff, they nail you on the blue dress.

  • http://www.billingsnews.com David Crisp

    Everybody screws up. Not everybody steals.

  • http://tomgrey.motime.com Tom Grey – Liberty Dad

    The objective copy standard, as compared to the subjective “wrong-headed” (says WHO???), is the main culprit.
    WITH, implicitly, the idea that the wrong-headed are much more likely to cheat/ copy — so severe punishment on the objective copy complaint, is also likely to help curb the wrong-headed.
    Much like the best way to stop “subjective” drunk driving is more watching for “objective” speeding.
    But the other problem is “neutrality” about the news. What is reported, or not, is implicitly part of the agenda — and it is primarily conformance to the agenda that determines “wrongness” of a report.

  • ralph phelan

    “The press cares more about protecting the ownership of content than about getting stories right.
    Now that’s not only heresy, it’s a wrong and rather ridiculous way to state the proposition and I know it: plagiarism is obvious theft with an easy standard to identify and writing a wrong-headed or sloppy story is not an easy standard to agree to. ”
    Wrong headed or sloppy may be hard to agree to. But when you run with a story based on obviously phony documents (or rig a truck with explosives so you’ll get better visuals when it crashes) it’s pretty easy for anyone not directly involved and profiting to agree that something wrong was done.
    So long as Dan Rather still has his job, I’ll continue to believe that “getting the story right” is of secondary importance at best to CBS. So long as Eason “I’ll be Saddam’s mouthpiece in exchange for access” Jordan is still at CNN, and so long as the people who told Perer Arnett to go ahead with his Tailwind story are still there, I’ll believe the same about them.
    There’s arguably mistaken, for which people shouldn’t be fired. But then there’s clear negligence and/or politically motivated malice. People should get fired for that, but they don’t.