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Archive for January 17th, 2008

QOTD: Journalists need three things

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

“Journalists need three things.
The first is passion. Why are you doing this? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Figure that out, and devote as much attention as possible to those parts of your job. I still think journalism is the greatest racket in the world. You have a license to snoop, to ask questions of anyone.
The second thing is determination. Make yourself known and make your passions known. Push yourself and others to get space and time to explore your interests.
The third thing is persistence. It’s a virtue. What we do is not for wimps. Work hard and work smart. To take over a beat and really do something with it, you have to do your homework.”
— Ken Wells, page-one editor, The Wall Street Journal.

(Via Cleveland SPJ)

What do you say about suspected plagiarism?

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

As we continue to follow the recent floods up here in northwest Indiana, I’ve been called on to pick up random stories here and there. (Not so much random, but between beats kind of things.) Today it was the arrival of FEMA to assess the damage. Yesterday, it was about the American Red Cross naming the region a national level disaster.

A version of the charticle that ran in today’s paper was originally posted yesterday (Tuesday night) as a breaking news item. A version of my story was out on the state wire around 1 p.m. today (Wednesday).

Now, today, I was charged with kind of picking up all the pieces for a comprehensive “This is where we stand” update for Thursday’s paper. My editor handed me a story printed off the site of the paper in one of the small cities to our north, which was one of the worst affected spots. It included comments about the Red Cross efforts in that area, which he wanted me to check into.

I set it aside as I made some other calls and tried to rein in other sources and wrap up another story. About half an hour later, I picked the print out up and noticed something that piqued my interest. It sounded familiar. Really, really familiar.

At first I thought, well how many ways are there to write that an area’s been named a disaster site? Coincidence perhaps. But then, when I re-read it, I noticed something that made my heart race. Between the lead in my online update yesterday and the lead in the story that ran today I made a change to clarify something I realized after I’d already posted the update. My original lead was:

The American Red Cross has named Northwest Indiana a national level disaster because of the recent floods, which destroyed hundreds of homes and left thousands displaced.

As a result, more than 50 volunteers from across the country have already been mobilized to aid in the recovery effort in the 17-county region, with headquarters in Lafayette.

When I wasn’t just trying to get the story up, and I was smoothing it out for print, I realized I needed to specify it “left thousands of residents displaced.” Otherwise it sounds like it displaced homes. I also fixed the incorrect capitalization on northwest Indiana. Small technicalities.

But seeing the same technical mistakes in the other story made me suspicious. So I brought up my online update and compared the familiar-sounding lead.

My version, with a 6:55 p.m. time stamp:
My original update

Their version:
Plagiarized story

I don’t know if I can sum up in words how utterly shocked I was to discover the first two paragraphs of that story were identical to the first two graphs of my update. I mean, word for word they must have been copy and pasted. Go back and look again. I had to.

At first, my instinct was, maybe the wires picked it up and they just took that to top their story. But then I checked, and as I said before, it wasn’t on the wire until 1:12 p.m. I had the print out before then. Plus, the wire story further cleans up my lead. I also noticed the story doesn’t attribute anything to the Associated Press or even “Wire reports,” and it certainly doesn’t mention the J&C.

I mean, wow. I was pretty much speechless. This stuff doesn’t happen. Does it? Nobody’s that dumb. Are they?

This is plagiarism, right? I’m not confusing my journalism terms or just annoyed that guy took credit for my haphazard sentences and reporting. I mean, this is not OK. Right?

On one hand I have the inclination that I’m sure we caught them off guard because we got the news late in the day and posted it after the Red Cross had closed. Therefore, they likely couldn’t independently confirm what they read on our site. But they didn’t even attempt to rewrite around it. There was so much other, (presumably) original reporting in that story. Why would you top it off with someone else’s lead, especially if that someone else covers your region and will likely stumble across your story? I don’t get it. I mean. Who does that?!

The next question, I guess, once I reconcile my feelings is… What do you do with something like this? I pointed it out to my editor when I realized. I don’t know what he will do or has done. I asked him, jokingly, what he’d do if we just took two paragraphs from another paper, and his comment was simply, “I can’t fire a (the other paper) reporter.” I’d expect to be and hope I would be fired for doing that.

So I guess my question is, what would you do?

One of the other reporters suggested I e-mail the reporter directly to ask about it. But I don’t know. It’s probably one of those things best left to the editors.