The plagiarism rule I learned in the newsroom 45 years ago is this: Don’t steal. It has a corollary: Never deceive readers.
Earlier this month, the Kansas City Star fired columnist Steve Penn “for using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own work.” Penn, at least a dozen times, the paper says, took material from press releases and did not tell the readers he did so. The paper was correct to fire Penn; he is suing.
Penn has a defender — Gerard Corbett, chairman and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America. Corbett says it’s okay to take material from a press release (within limits) and use it without attribution. Corbett is wrong, wrong, wrong too.
Here’s part of Corbett’s recent PRSA post on the issue:
Most public relations professionals I know are thrilled to see some or all of their press releases appear in print. After all, those words found their way onto the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. And what better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release? [emphasis added]
(By the way, how much does that last line echo what presidential candidates demand of reporters these days — approval of quotations from campaign officials?)
Corbett acknowledges that “journalists still are facing scrutiny and criticism over the practice” of cutting and pasting from press releases without attribution. But to support his contention that cut-and-paste without acknowledging the source is often permissible, he quotes from Penn’s suit against the Star.
The journalist in question [Penn] doesn’t think so. In a legal complaint filed in response to his firing, he argues that the “widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors … with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished … with no or minimal editing.” [emphasis added]
Penn and Corbett miss the point. Yes, newsrooms often run press releases with little or no editing. That’s a different issue. What is a firing offense is to not tell readers the source of that material. That is deceit, not merely lousy editorial judgment.
We are surrounded these days by mediated deceit. Presidential campaigns have taken remarks by candidates and spliced them deceptively. They have put thoughts into speakers’ mouths that speakers did not intend. Mitt Romney’s campaign has done so. Barack Obama has edited himself deceptively.
Journalism has been fraught with accusations of deceit over the past few decades — Stephen Glass from 1996 to 1998, Jayson Blair in 2003, Lloyd Brown in 2004, Maureen Dowd in 2009, Sari Horwitz in 2011, Johann Hari in 2011, and this summer, NPR intern Ahmad Shafi.
Need more examples?
John Hanchette, a 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner who occupied the professorial office next to mine for a decade, cut through the bullshit about plagiarism in the syllabi for his courses. He allowed me to use his words in mine:
Plagiarism is when you try to pass off someone else’s ideas and words as your own. It comes from the old Latin noun plagiarius, meaning ‘kidnapper.’ You get the idea. Fabrication is simply making something up, like a source or a quote. This includes distortion or fractional truths.
PRSA’s Corbett suggests the line between between theft of words and facts and appropriate unattributed use is fungible:
But is it really necessary to attribute dates and times or other general information contained within a press release, when this information is provided specifically for the purpose of publication? Not really.
Corbett’s post — and quasi-defense of Penn — is thoughtful. But failing to tell readers the source of words or facts is just plain wrong — no matter how small the detail. Honesty with readers requires just three words tacked onto a sentence containing facts or words from a press release — “said the company.”
Don’t steal. Don’t deceive.
Journalism should be a craft based on an honest relationship with readers. Too often it is not. But it should be: Anything less is just … PR.