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Panpa Bulletin : November December 2006
November--December 2006 PANPA BULLETIN | 23 Ethical codes need tightening to scuttle word pirates Almost every week the ABC television program Media Watch exposes another example of a newspaper journalist plagiarising someone else's work. Why is it that reporters and columnists seem so ready to steal the words of others and parade them as their own? And why do editors and publishers so often turn a blind eye to plagiarists in their own newsrooms? It is even more bewildering when those same companies take umbrage at others lifting their articles. Some have become quite litigious in defending their intellectual prop- erty in the internet era. Various reasons are presented as excuses for journalists plagiarising. One is the simple fact that they are over- worked, particularly in smaller newsrooms, and become so desperate when trying to fill column centimetres that they cannot resist the temptation to plagiarise slabs of other writers' work. But how hard is it really to tell readers the source of the material, and to paraphrase or quote it to give due credit to the author? Another excuse is that journalists have always had a fairly 'loose' attribution style, sometimes resorting to expressions as vague as 'sources said'. Yet it is a huge leap from poor attribution to no attribution at all, claiming the intellectual property of others as your own work. Some fall back on the 'Well, everybody steals our copy' rationale, as if there is some transcendental yin and yang universe of intel- lectual property, excusing your plagiarising of the New York Times or Wikipedia because the local radio station ripped and read your news story this morning. The practice is all the more surprising given the number of university graduates now working in the industry. For all their faults, university courses get tough on student plagiarists. Course guides carry clear warnings against the sin and university disciplinary hearings are routinely failing or expelling students for this kind of cheating. Universities and many high schools require their students to submit their work to the rigours of plagiarism detection software like 'Turnitin' before assignments will be accepted. But journalism -- an occupation whose credibility relies on the creation of original words -- seems to almost encourage plagia- rists by not even frowning upon them once they have been exposed. Some take it badly. The late 60 Minutes reporter Richard Carleton sued for defama- tion over a Media Watch allegation in 2000 that he had plagiarized a BBC documentary. Although Media Watch had a defence of fair comment, Carleton had a moral victory when the judge said the allegation was 'wronghead- ed and prejudiced'. Carleton and his executive producer had described plagiarism as 'heinous' and as one of the worst accusations that could be made against a professional journalist. Justice Higgins called it a form of dishonest and lazy journalism, and said it was "regarded by journalists and, indeed, many others as an accusation of disgraceful and reprehensible conduct." (Incidentally, I just cut and pasted that from the court transcript, but note my subtle and appropriate attribution, admittedly not meeting full academic requirements, but quite sufficient for a magazine column.) Many of us would agree with the judge's perception of plagiarism, but it doesn't seem to stop some of the biggest names in journalism and commentary lifting the work of others. The internet era makes it so much easier to plagiarise -- and also so much easier to get caught out. The temptation is there to cut and paste large sections of material, particularly when so much of the medium is a free-for-all. The downside is that readers have online tools like Turnitin at their fingertips and can email their findings to Media Watch almost as fast as a writer can press Ctrl C and Ctrl V. Fred Fedler, Professor of Journalism at the University of Central Florida, has studied the history of plagiarism in reporting. I must, of course, point out that I am about to draw upon his article in the Spring 2006 edition of the Newspaper Research Journal (volume 27, number 2, pages 24-37). Fedler notes that as late as the 18th century writers considered it an honour for others to copy their work. "The idea that anyone 'owned' his/her words after they entered the public arena would have been considered a form of folly," he writes, citing the fact that Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tennyson, Twain and Kipling were all thought to have plagiarised. Many Asian cultures have maintained a similar approach to the intellectual prop- erty of others, a practice not confined to the written word as anyone who has purchased a 'genuine' Louis Vuitton bag at a Thai or Balinese market will attest. Fedler found the copying of others' work remained an almost accepted practice until well into the 20th century. However, he suggested the nature of plagia- rists has changed in recent times. "For years, journalists were expected to copy their rivals, and entire staffs acted to- gether," Fedler writes. "Journalists were proud of their exploits and did little to conceal them. "Today's plagiarists are secretive and act alone, suggesting that they know their actions are unethical." Fedler says newspapers need to become proactive with plagiarism and should start by developing written policies and defining it clearly. "Without adequate definitions and guide- lines, plagiarism remains a matter of opinion, confusion and disagreement. "While plagiarism can never be totally eliminated, journalists may be able to curtail the problem by adopting some of the policies developed by other institutions." That should not prove difficult for Australian journalists, whose MEAA Code of Ethics has a very clear clause: "Do not plagiarise." (Interestingly, neither New Zealand's Press Council nor its journalists' code of ethics pro- hibits plagiarism as such, although both ban the broader category of dishonesty.) While the Australian journalists' ethical code is uncompromising on the issue, the enforcement of that code is another question, and the MEAA is in the process of reviewing its disciplinary system and may even aban- don it completely. That would leave employers themselves and the Australian Press Council, which lacks a plagiarism clause in its Statement of Principles, to police breaches. However, given that the most serious pla- giarism cases are also a breach of somebody's copyright, it is most likely we will see the of- fenders either on Media Watch or in court. Professor Mark Pearson is the Head of Journalism, Director, Centre for New Media Research and Education, at Bond University. MEDIA MATTERS It s easy to attribute. It s getting easier by the day for those who don t to get caught. So why does journalistic plagiarism remain rampant, asks Mark Pearson, and why do editors continue to turn a blind eye?