Plagiarism is never acceptable. Along with making up facts, there is no greater journalistic crime than stealing someone else’s work.
A reporter who plagiarizes does more than steal - he embarrasses his publication and he forever calls into question his own truthfulness and reputation. A journalist has no other currency than his honor and honesty. If you lose that, you might as well look for another career. If your readers don't trust you, you are no use to anyone.
In the real world, the slightest whiff of plagiarism, even accidental, can cost you your job. And you can bet that if you get fired for plagiarism by one publication, there will be precious few other publications that will hire you.
What is plagiarism?
The classic academic definition of plagiarism is to use more than three consecutive words that are identical to the work of another. This is not sufficient in the real world.
You cannot simply change a few words in someone else's work to protect yourself. If you use substantially similar language or structure, lifted from another publication, your editor may accuse you of plagiarism.
If you rely on someone else's unique research, such as the results of a poll or information uncovered during a lengthy investigative project, without offering the original authors full credit, you may be guilty of plagiarism. The rules on this are not completely rigid: if information is so old or so common as to be part of the “public domain”, you may be protected (or maybe not; better to offer credit than get caught stealing).
If you use quotes collected by another publication, you may be guilty of plagiarism. If you find a quote from a public official that is repeated identically in multiple publications and reasonably appears to have been uttered in a press conference, you probably do not need to credit the source where you found the quote (though it still wouldn’t hurt to do so).
If, however, you lift a quote that a source gave exclusively to another reporter, or even to a group of reporters where you were not present, you may be guilty of plagiarism.
These rules extend to press releases, speeches, and other material that did not appear in a book, newspaper, newsmagazine, or in electronic media. You should not lift the exact words of any such press release or speech. You may take the information, provided you believe it to be correct, and repeat it, but do not lift the exact structure and wording without explaining to the reader where you found the material.
How can I protect myself?
The rules are simple, although the line between plagiarism and “fair use” is sometimes not as clear-cut as we might wish. Basically, do not use the words, ideas, story structure, or research of another person without offering him due credit.
For the most part you are safe if you tell the reader explicitly where a fact, phrase, or quote comes from.
Here are some examples:
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the stars and studios have shut down access for freelance photographers - the famed paparazzi corps that made a lucrative living snapping shots of stars at premiers, awards shows, and benefit banquets.
According to the Times, the notoriously cutthroat photographers are setting aside their competitive instincts to organize a “celebrity photographer” association to issue credentials and negotiate with publicists and event organizers to guarantee access behind the restrictive new security barriers.
This is a fair and acceptable use of the information contained in a lengthy and detailed report on the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks on Hollywood. To have given the same information without crediting the Times would represent stealing the ingenuity, the hours of effort and the years of experience of the reporters who researched the piece.
In the most recent high-profile example, the A-list cast of the upcoming movie “Ocean's 11,” said last month that it would travel to a U.S. base in Turkey to entertain British and American troops supporting the campaign in Afghanistan. The travelers include stars George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Brad Pitt.
The Sept. 11 attacks “really ...made us appreciate again what we have,” Mr. Pitt told ABC News.
“It's basically reminded us of these freedoms,” Producer Jerry Weintraub told ABC, “We're going to give them a hug from everybody in America because there out on the front lines fighting this war for us ... and we want them to know how we’re behind them and how we care.”
Likewise, this is a fair use of the ABC quotes and research. It is not clear in the original ABC story whether these quotes were given exclusively to ABC or uttered in a press conference, so the author of the above paragraphs erred on the side of caution and fully credited the ABC report. This tells the reader where the information came from and it also warns the reader that the author was either too lazy or too pressed for time to confirm the information independently. That allows the reader to make his own judgment about the reliability of the author or information.
It is very easy to protect yourself from plagiarism if you live by the following motto: tell the reader exactly what you know and exactly what you don't know. Don't pretend to be something that you are not, or to know something you don't. If you don't have the time, ability, or inclination to find the information yourself, do the reader the courtesy of being honest about it.
In all cases, it is better to err on the side of caution and give too much credit to your competitors than to give too little.
It all cases, it is better to ask your editors for help; better to risk appearing silly by asking a question that to risk your reputation and career.
Questions? Comments? Contact Me: SPScully@seanibus.com