The Misadventures of Quinxy truths, lies, and everything in between!

24Nov/121

The Big Lie About Plagiarism: Everyone Does It

At various points in recent years much has been made in the news about the news and plagiarism, but the more people talk about it the more I am confused.  When someone lifts entire passages word for word from one source and publishes it unattributed as their own work, this is clearly wrong.  But when someone consults one or more sources and publishes a regurgitation of the original lacking much detail or considerably expanding with new detail, I struggle to see that as the plagiarism people seem to suggest it is.  My confusion stems from the fact that everyone, particularly those in the news media, commits exactly this offense, and no one seems to be bothered, so at exactly what point does the act become plagiarism?

A simple example might illustrate my confusion.  Some newsworthy event happens in the world.  The event is first discovered / covered by one news source.  Other news entities hear about the story, from the publication via  the original source or from people talking about the publication via the original source, and those news entities begin to write about the same subject as well.  Invariably and of necessity the follow-up news organizations borrow details from the original news source, I find it hard to believe that upon learning of the existence of the original story every news man/woman who writes about it goes directly to those original people and agencies involved in the actual events and gathers direct retellings of those events.  And in the vast majority of cases those other news stories do not credit the original source, save for the few exceptions where the original story was known to be principally, initially investigated by one specific news source (as when a story might say, "...as initially uncovered in an investigation by 20/20.")  The primary sort of attribution one might commonly see is a reference to a news "wire service" (AP, Reuters, etc.) which seems to provide reporters with some carte blanche, as they pay to license that content, and are no doubt absolved from knowing how that wire service obtained the information.  My point is that if police accidentally kill an innocent child in Loredo, TX and this information makes it into the local TV news you can be sure the local radio, newspaper, etc. are sure to follow with stories, but are they not going to base their reporting in part on details lifted from the initial telling of the story?  Do they really find their own direct source for every detail of their own version of the story?  Surely not.  And when these stories make their way into wider and wider reportage surely there's no possible way any local police station, hospital, doctor, family of the victim, could supply enough direct information to the thousands of reporters regurgitating the news.  And so at what point does repeating a variation of a thing, with greater or lesser detail, with similar or dissimilar focus, become the crime of plagiarism?

It is not that I condone the theft of ideas and intellectual labor, I simply acknowledge that it goes on constantly, and it seems peculiar that the we've lately seen certain figures pilloried when those on the attack do a variation of the exact same thing.

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  1. You are right. In fact, news is often news about what others have written. “the NYTimes today reported that…”

    All history books borrow maps. In fact, all those Rand McNally copyright maps come from US Government public domain satellite photos. They then change the colors, graphics and call it theirs.

    When I covered Paris fashion shows, all the editors were in terror of writing anything without first checking what Women’s Wear Daily – the gods of fashion journalism had first written. Paris was six hours or so ahead. So they could get the news at midnight and adapt their stories to confirm with the experts by morning. Pretty funny. By complete coincidence every fashion designer would write that this season Yves Saint Laurent presented a fabulous little dress colored ‘cherry red tomato.’


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