Plagiarism plagues the press at all levels

Protest the Pope - 23 - Johann Hari vs Benedict
Johann Hari (Photo credit: lewishamdreamer)

The issue of journalists plagiarising content has hit the headlines recently, most notably with the Independent’s Johann Hari last year.

He was derided as the symbol of unethical journalism in the ‘cut and paste’ age for lifting passages from the work of others to embellish his copy. Having made a name for himself by criticising the wrongs of others, the industry was never going to give him a sympathetic hearing once he was found out.

I don’t have sympathy for him either, but the rest of the media is in no position to crow about this practice in my view; what, after all, does that make the press releases regularly published at all levels of the media?  It isn’t plagiarism in the sense that Hari’s activity was, sure. But it is little more than ‘cut and paste’ reporting in many respects.

There are a couple of things recently that have brought this subject closer to home for me and added to my suspicion that this becoming more common.

The first was a story about the editor of the Reading Chronicle (where I used to work) complaining that the BBC was lifting their stories.

Writing in a column for the paper, Sally Stevens called for political action to:

“..tell the BBC off for paying 60p a week for our reporters’ hard work so its radio presenters can read a page lead out every day masquerading as its own news bulletin and castigate other newspapers for copying and pasting our online news onto their own websites.”

Then, today, I was surprised to read a story in a regional daily, which quoted a ‘HCA spokesman’ (ie me) in relation to an interview with a colleague that was broadcast on BBC radio at 7.30am and online later that day. The story wasn’t damaging, but it wasn’t entirely correct either, and no-one called me to check the facts before publication, let alone offer a right of reply. They simply reported the radio exchange as their own work. The spokesman was my colleague. I’ll be pinging a letter to the editor tomorrow; the temptation to cut and paste The Chron’s criticisms above will be resisted.

There are different degrees of plagiarism, as demonstrated by the examples above. But nicking content from competitors matters because cutting corners is how mistakes are made. Readers and listeners are cheated by the bogus suggestion that such content is authentic and self-generated. That, in turn, damages trust and puts people off.

Responsibility for this rests with those at the top of the media organisations which have been squeezed over the last 20 years while such a culture has grown. We can all agree that it’s wrong. But with other people’s content the click of a mouse away, and increasing pressure on reporters to deliver quickly with a skeleton staff, is it surprising that some fall for the temptation to rip others’ work off and claim it as their own?