What a plagiarism epidemic says about the decline of print

Updated: It seems a week can’t go by without a new incident of plagiarism by some prominent journalist, and this week it’s Margaret Wente, a star columnist with one of Canada’s national newspapers, who has been found guilty of using content from other journalists and academics without crediting them. As others have in similar cases, Wente says it was a simple mistake, although she has apparently been disciplined (in some unknown fashion) by the paper’s editor-in-chief. But there is a much larger point here than just the fact that journalists can get sloppy, and that the internet is a fact-checking machine unlike any other: Just like Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria before her, Wente’s behavior — and the newspaper’s lackluster response to it — speaks volumes about the flaws of print and the corresponding benefits of online media and journalism.

As I’ve argued before, part of the problem with print media — and something that often spills over into the digital versions of those media — is that it is incapable of providing the kind of credit that the web can when a writer is making use of someone else’s thoughts or words. A simple hyperlink or two would arguably have made Wente’s behavior, and that of many others, much less open to criticism. But the reality is that there are also deeper problems than just a failure to link.

Summarizing content without credit is a losing strategy

One of those problems is that the job of newspaper columnists — and analysts like Zakaria, and pop-culture interpreters like Jonah Lehrer — has always been to take in content from elsewhere and synthesize it (or remix it, to use a popular metaphor) and then hopefully make a point of some kind. Doing this actually made some sense when print newspapers and TV shows were the primary method of information delivery, but rehashing what a couple of other columnists or pundits said without giving them credit simply doesn’t work as well any more — too many people notice.

Full disclosure: I should note that I am about as conflicted as any writer could possibly be about this case: I worked at the Globe and Mail for more than 15 years, as a reporter and a columnist (as well as the paper’s first social-media editor), and was originally hired by none other than Margaret Wente, who was then running the newspaper’s business section. I have worked closely with her and Sylvia Stead — who is now the paper’s public editor, and was the first one to respond to the accusations — and with John Stackhouse, who is now the editor-in-chief and has written a public statement saying that Wente’s behavior did not meet the newspaper’s standards.

To sum up for those who haven’t been following it, Wente has been accused a number of times over the past several years of using content from other journalists (including some from the New York Times), and one case in particular from 2009 blew up this week — after a blog post by Carol Wainio, a frequent critic of Wente’s, got picked up by media industry observers and was circulated on Twitter. According to Wainio’s research, which others have verified, the columnist used a number of verbatim phrases from a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper (which is owned by the Globe’s main competitor, Postmedia) as well as an academic.

The newspaper was silent on the charges for some time, until public editor Sylvia Stead wrote what some critics have complained was a mealy-mouthed response, in which she referred to Wainio dismissively as “an anonymous blogger” (even though Stead has had numerous interactions with her in the past over similar issues) and downplayed most of the errors that now appear to have been made. After attacks on the Globe from a number of sources — including the former chairman of the journalism school at Ryerson University in Toronto — the paper published the response from Stackhouse (which referred to “taking appropriate action”) as well as a column from Wente that stopped short of being an outright apology but attempted to provide an explanation for her behavior.

The media playing field has been levelled

In many ways, the nature of the Globe’s response has probably fanned the flames of criticism rather than dampened them: not surprisingly, the column from Wente is defensive, but it and the responses from Stead and Stackhouse also fail to deal with the fact that there have been other similar incidents in the past, some of which appear to have been brushed under the carpet. The general attitude seems to be shock that anyone would listen to a mere blogger on such matters, rather than trusting the Globe to do what is right — a classic response from a traditional media gatekeeper that doesn’t realize the playing field has been levelled.

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As Craig Silverman at Poynter notes, this kind of response does little to help build or maintain (or repair) the trust that readers have in the paper, something that is of crucial importance in an era when readers have dozens, if not hundreds, of other sources they can go to.

I wonder what the New York Times might have done in a case like Wente’s, given that the paper’s new public editor has been extremely quick to jump on criticism of the paper’s decisions and provide explanatory posts or even just discuss the concerns that readers have, whether they are mentioned on Twitter or elsewhere. This is not the kind of thing that newspapers have ever been good at, but they are going to have to develop those skills if they wish to survive, let alone grow or prosper. A trusted relationship with readers is one of the only strengths they have.

Like every other traditional media outlet, they are going to have to get used to the idea of no longer being on a pedestal, no longer being the default choice for content — and no longer able to get away with simply rewriting what others have said and passing it off as original thought. As Greg Beato at Reason notes, we are living in a “golden age for fact checking,” when anyone with a web browser can check any statement against most of recorded history, and that imposes a duty on media entities that goes beyond the simple admission of error. Transparency may not be pleasant, but it is the only realistic option available.

Update: Sylvia Stead has written a new blog post about lessons the Globe and Mail could learn from the Wente case, including her own admission that she should have dug deeper into the complaints against the columnist before responding. The editor’s note on the original column has also been updated to reflect the unattributed use of the Ottawa Citizen writer’s material.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Aih and Dr. Dawg’s Blog