Plagiarism in the News

>2011 – British newspaper The Daily Mail is accused of copying large sections of a story from The New York Times without attribution. The Mail responded by removing the suspect passages and by exchanging the Mail reporter’s byline with the generic “Daily Mail Reporter.” [Source: MediaPost]

2005 – Nearly a dozen publications respond to allegations that stories contained factual errors or had been plagiarized, at least in part. [Source: Regret the Error]

2003 – Reporter Jayson Blair resigns from the New York Times amid allegations that he plagiarized certain details of several stories and fabricated other details. Accusations of inaccurate reporting were made by staffers at the college newspaper where he had served as an editor and reporter. [Source: Wikipedia]

1998 – Associated Editor Stephen Glass is fired from The New Republic after Lead Editor Charles Lane investigated complaints about a story’s veracity. The senior staff subsequently learned that more than half of Glass’ articles for the publication contained inaccuracies or, in some cases, were complete fiction. [Source: Wikipedia]

I’m sure I could go back and back and back through the history of journalism to find examples of plagiarism, inaccuracies and outright lies. Over 100 years ago, publisher William Randolph Hearst allegedly sent this message to artist Frederic Remington on assignment in Cuba: “You supply the pictures. I’ll supply the war.”

I blame two factors for the seeming increase in faulty and unethical reporting.

SENSATIONALISM

News changed on September 11, 2001. Everyone was after the latest facts, first about the terrorist attacks of the day and later about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where for years, viewers could choose between three major broadcast networks and a couple of cable news channels, suddenly half a dozen news options on cable were vying with the networks for a rapidly dwindling pool of viewers. The internet gives people instant access to information from eyewitnesses, the man on the street, bloggers, and YouTube videos.

I remember on 9/11 hearing reports coming in about a possible truck bomb near the White House, I believe it was. At least one jet airliner was missing and a plane crash had been reported in Pennsylvania – but no one knew yet that the downed plane was the missing plane. Reporters were talking to witnesses in New York who reported hearing a missile or seeing a small plane crash into the first World Trade Tower.

As that day and that story and the related stories went on, it seems to me that the 24-hour-news stations decided it was more important to report every little tidbit and then verify it later than to verify it before putting it out there. They wanted to be able to say, “You heard it here first.” Mistakes never seemed to be acknowledged; they just stopped reporting them.

I was working in local news at the time; we were still in the business of getting our facts straight before going on the air.

In the ensuing years, too, we’ve seen more and more opinion presented as news. Many outlets have an obvious bias. The parent company of the news organization I worked for from 1999 to 2007 owned quite a few TV stations. I worked for an ABC affiliate, and we often used network-produced packages on major stories. After awhile, the parent company required us to run certain pieces produced by their Washington bureau in lieu of reports produced by the “liberal media” at ABC.

The sensationalism and rumor-mongering were fueled by ratings. The proliferation of cable news channels along with ever-increasing web-based sources for news and information have led to furious grasping for audience. Newspapers struggling to stay afloat, TV stations and networks scrabbling for ratings, and new media fighting for revenue will do or say anything to get people talking about them and tuning in.

STAFF REDUCTIONS

At the same time as all these media outlets are trying to one-up each other in order to lure bigger audiences, they are trying to cut costs. I don’t know how much any organization is losing. I know some newspapers have folded, at least in the traditional print sense; they may still be present online. That could be because they’re operating in the red or maybe they’re breaking even, but that’s not what any business is about, even the business of information. Business is about profits.

In order to minimize cost, thus maximizing income, staff is being cut. I doubt that most newspapers have proofreaders or copy editors anymore. When I worked in TV news, I was lucky to have anchors who read over the scripts before the show and questioned anything that was obviously incorrect or even looked a little fishy. I read the stories that reporters turned in for my show. I wrote a lot of stories from Associated Press wire copy, press releases, and/or interviews collected in the field by videographers working alone. In those cases, I counted on my anchors catching me in any mistakes.

Honest, legitimate mistakes can and do happen. That’s why it’s important to have a team all watching out for each other. When I worked on the production side, doing graphics and supers, I’d read over the script, not just the notes on what words I was supposed to put on the screen. I’d question anything that didn’t seem to match up. I’d look up spellings of streets or names or I’d just ask the producer to check it. Did I make mistakes? Of course. I know how to spell cemetery now, after I typed it cemetary on an over-the-shoulder graphic that went out on the air.

Unfortunately, a lot of people nowadays are so focused on their own jobs or texting their friends or checking their email that they go through their day with blinders on, never understanding that the whole organization would function better with a little teamwork.

But, I digress.

Every time I turn around, I hear of someone else laid off from the daily paper. I’ll talk with a local reporter or editor and find out they’ve had yet another duty piled on their already overfull plates. In addition to writing the stories and prepping them for publication or broadcast, now they have to post on Facebook and tweet the headline with links to the website, where they were the ones required to reformat and post the story.

Staff cutbacks lead to sloppy reporting, typos, and mistakes. Did they lead to every case of plagiarism and fictionalizing listed at the start of this post? No, of course not, but they certainly aren’t helping. Not having enough staff to cross check and verify facts makes it easier for the falsehoods to slip through.

I worry about the future of news. People need someplace they can trust for accurate, unbiased facts so they can make up their own minds about the important issues of the day. I fear we are losing that.

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About Taminar

When I grow up, I want to make movies and write books. Now in my 50s, I wonder if I'll ever really accomplish the dreams of my youth. I have made two short films, one for a college film-making class, the other for an MTV-sponsored contest. I have written short plays that have been produced, and a few short stories and reviews that have been published. I also perform and direct for community theatre. My working life has included stints in local TV news, public relations, retail management and cashier, and for a couple of years, I made the rides go at Walt Disney World. I have three cats and a husband.
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