Craft Lesson: Cut-and-Paste Jobs

Craft Lessons

Plagiarism, the theft of another writer’s words and ideas, is one of journalism’s cardinal sins. Ryan Broderick learned that the hard way.

In 2020, he lost his job as senior reporter at the news website BuzzFeed after an investigation determined 11 of his articles had been plagiarized or incorrectly attributed to other sources, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“It is BuzzFeed News’ policy that nothing may be copied, pasted, and passed off as one’s own work, and that all quotes should be attributed,” Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Schoofs wrote readers. “We regret that in these instances those standards were not met.”

Journalists had been stealing words before, but the cut-and-paste functions on word processors that emerged in the 1970s have made it a snap to lift another’s prose.

At a time when so much research is conducted on the internet, some journalists find the allure of purloined words hard to resist.

You’re researching a story on the internet and come across a well-crafted sentence or paragraph that fits your piece perfectly. It’s better than anything you have.

IGNORE THE TEMPTATION

You’re tempted.

With a few keystrokes, you could easily lift the material and paste it into your story. You can change a few words around, thinking that the theft won’t be obvious. Or you come across a lively quote. This time, you pass it off as your own.

“Never plagiarize,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Co of Ethics says flat out. Your news organization probably echoes the sentiment in its stylebook.

And remember, the same computer systems that embolden word theft can also be turned on the offender by searching databases f borrowed materials.

The common excuses plagiarists trot out—haste, sloppy no taking, deadline pressure—won’t always save you. Plagiarism can be the equivalent of a career death sentence.

The ethical choice, and one that will protect you from dire punishment: do your own original reporting. If you still want use another’s words directly, attribute them to the source, paraphrase them and include where the information came from.

There’s a simple solution, one that I lay out in my journalism textbook “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century “If you think you should attribute it, then attribute it,” says Thomas Mallon, author of “Stolen Words,” an engaging history of plagiarism.

“Manage your time wisely,” my book continues. “Plagiarism is a desperate act. Writers behind on a deadline, exhausted, anxious, may delude themselves into believing that what they’re doing is nothing more than a shortcut. Be honest about where you got your information.”

If Ryan Broderick had followed the rule, he’d still have his job.

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