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
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.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Go. See. Do. Be present. Participate. Observe. Make your writing more than a desk job. Make it a journey of exploration: Teddy Roosevelt up the Amazon, Ernest Shackleton on the frozen Weddell Sea, Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream, Tanzania. Don’t just imagine, don’t rely on the internet; go find the scenes you are writing about and talk to the people who can give you insight into your characters. Investigate the worlds you want to bring to light, whether it’s a corner barbershop or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
If you are writing a murder mystery, do you know how your villain’s firearm works? Have you loaded a pistol or a revolver and shot it on the range? If you are putting a sermon in the mouth of a preacher, have you listened to one lately, read the Bible or the Quran, played an audiobook version of Father Mapple’s stemwinder in Moby-Dick?
I tried to get at some of these thoughts in “Zola’s Horse,” a lecture I delivered at Vermont College of Fine Arts, later repackaged as an essay for Numero Cinq.
Man-on-the-street interviews are a genre that gets you out in the community. Yet working for a series of small and medium papers, I grew tired of gathering quotes on local issues from semi-informed everyday Joes. So I made a point of looking for people doing something that would be fun to describe. Get quotes about the city council’s new budget from the guy jackhammering the sidewalk or the panhandler tossing peanuts to the pet spider monkey he keeps on a leash.
“As Chuck and I walk along 42nd Street, we see a person wearing an enormous frankfurter costume, handing out coupons good for discounts at Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands. His name is Victor Leise, age 19, of Queens, and he has held the position of giant frankfurter for four months. He says he didn’t have any connections or anything; he just put in an application and, boom, the job was his. Sheer luck. He says it’s OK work, although people call him “Frank” and sometimes sneak up and whack him on the back. Also there is not a lot of room for advancement. They have no hamburger costume.
“Can New York save itself ?” I ask him.
“If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility,” he says, through his breathing hole.”
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1986, when I was twenty-six, the youngest winner of that prize. (The book came out a year later.) I was a reporter for a smalltown newspaper in Oregon, and although I was getting encouraging letters from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, I had never published a short story anywhere. When John Leggett, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, phoned me with the good news, my heart was pounding so hard, I could barely gasp, “Really?”
He seemed to take this as a lack of enthusiasm, and said, “This is a very major award, you know.” I croaked, “I … I know.” He hung up, no doubt appalled at my ingratitude, unaware that I was now leaping about my apartment. Then immediately I told myself it couldn’t possibly be true. It was a prank! But who knew I had applied? Not my old college friends. Not my fellow reporters at the paper where I worked; I kept my fiction writing to myself, fearing they would consider it frivolous. My girlfriend had proofread the manuscript, but she wouldn’t be so cruel as to get somebody to punk me like this. The next morning I phoned the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the receptionist laughed at my doubts and assured me I really had won.
I told our managing editor that I had grabbed the award and would be having a book published. He said, “Type up a brief.” I had to admit I was lucky to get even this, there being far less interest in my little triumph than all those meth lab busts and forest fires and school tax base elections.
If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
A knight errant in full armor on a bicycle (see Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Why? My wife sees me as a lonely warrior, battling dragons when I get up at 4 a.m. every day to write fiction. (It helps that I’m an insomniac.) But there’s a ridiculous aspect to the whole enterprise, both in the audacity of imagining the minds of very different people, and in the graphomania that keeps one toiling for years on end for a lower hourly pay than convicts earn stamping license plates.
What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
I had just graduated from college as an English major when I somehow talked myself into a newspaper internship on the Longview (Washington) Daily Courier. After a week of repairing my hopelessly roundabout stories, my city editor, David Connelly, sat me down in the morgue and said he was going to teach me how to write a lede. He got out a copy of the Wall Street Journal and pointed to the feature in the center column on page one.
Do it like that, he said. Grab the reader’s attention with the opening line, then drop in a quote, then add a “nut graf” telling the reader why the story was important. Of course, this would be too formulaic for fiction, but something about it connected with me as a literary writer. Establish a conflict right away. Add dialogue. Tell us the stakes—why this matters, what’s at risk for the central characters, why we should read it. Starting out strong is all the more important in the age of smartphones and streaming video. We are at war for readers’ attention. Strike quickly.
This editor also influenced my thinking in my answer to your first question. When Washington state passed a law requiring mandatory jail sentences for drunken drivers, Connelly came to me and said, “How’d you like to go to jail?” He had concocted a scheme to slip me in undercover; only the warden would be aware who I was. Cowlitz County Jail wasn’t Rikers Island, but I was terrified. Nevertheless, I said, “Sure.” I would spend twenty-four hours in cells that included burglars, wife-beaters, meth addicts, and a murderer. I emerged unscathed, and no doubt in far less danger than I imagined, but it made for a thrilling immersion into a criminal world unknown to me as a young writer.
Because you’re a subscriber to Chip’s Writing Lessons, I wanted to give you advance notice that on Thursday, June 16, the ebook edition of my new book, 33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism, will be free for the first two days of publication.
For the following three days, the price will be 99 cents. Then it returns to the regular sales price of $4.99, which is what it costs to pre-order before Thursday. (The paperback is $12.99.)
I’m doing this to get it quickly in the hands of as many readers as I can. I believe this succinct, authoritative handbook is a survival manual that’s needed by journalists and students, whatever their age, job, or level of experience, now more than ever in our democracy.
Please feel free to share the link— amzn.to/3zq5IDM — with your friends and colleagues.
Your opinion counts. Love or hate it, leave a review on Amazon, please.
Preached how to make time to write, defeat the inner critic, etc., on the welcoming & wise “Curiosity Hour Podcast” w/ @CuriosityHour & Dan Sterenchuk, who invited me to talk about and read from my newest book, “33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Journalism,” due out June 14. Thanks, guys!
When I think of the hundreds of journalists I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it was their attitude that made them special.
Five decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior—matters more than talent.
Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room.
Journalism is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding of structure, and facility with language, syntax, and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and above all, patience.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success,Malcolm Gladwell cited research that found achieving mastery in any field requires 10,000 hours of work. There’s no doubt that becoming a good journalist takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. “Do the work,” no matter how tedious, is Bryan Gruley’s mantra when he wrote long features for Bloomberg Businessweekmagazine and now as the author of thriller fiction.
Without the right attitude and the willingness to make that commitment, the chances of success are slim to none.
ATTITUDE PAYS OFF
David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, best-selling author and associate editor of The Washington Post. But what I remember best was what he had to say when I interviewed him after he won a $10,000 American Society of Newspaper Editors award for deadline reporting.
His prize-winning 1996 story—about the return of government officials killed in a plane crash to Dover Air Force Base—was a stunning meditation on fate and loss reported and written in a matter of hours.
The weather was cold and miserable. Maraniss wound up with pneumonia. But he covered the story like an eager intern.
GIVE AND GET
Maraniss often devoted months to investigations and series. But when news broke, he was one of the first to pitch in.
“Usually when there’s some kind of major event happening, I either volunteer to help out, or they ask me,” he told me. “Even if I’m doing a series, I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to be in a position to say yes…”
“So many reporters keep banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what they have to do or don’t have to do,” he said. “I’ve always found it much more effective to do what I want to do by doing some things for them. There’s a fair exchange.”
In a field where so much—success and rejection, for starters—is out of a journalist’s hands, attitude is one thing we can control. We can decide whether to offer help, as Maraniss did, to procrastinate or commit to one more revision or learn from others, rather than be consumed by jealousy about their achievements.
AN ATTITUDE CHECKLIST
Attitude makes the difference between giving up and sticking with a story.
Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft, burrowing into your story one more time to refine and polish it.
Attitude means fostering a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.
In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.
Alexandra Zayas is a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, running a team of reporters and overseeing senior editors of its global public health and visual storytelling teams. Since joining ProPublica in 2017, stories she edited have won two National Magazine Awards, two George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She worked at the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years, ultimately as the newspaper’s enterprise editor. As a reporter, her investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. She also teaches investigative journalism at Poynter.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as an editor?
Editing isn’t about fixing the copy in front of you, it’s about squeezing the best possible version of the story out of the universe by helping the writer to see it and capture it. What that help looks like will vary between individuals and fluctuate for the same writer at different points in the process. A big part of the job is removing obstacles, especially those that are self-imposed. One writer may need help seeing the forest for the caveats. Another may need reminders to get inside subjects’ shoes and hearts. Editing is knowing when to stay out of their hair and when to give them a nudge, when to insist they keep pushing for the impossible and when to let them cut bait. It’s making sure they feel comfortable arguing with you and recognizing when they’re right — but also recognizing when, amid a nasty bout of 11th-hour second-guessing, the writer is just tired and hangry; then, you send them a sandwich. You can’t do this job without legitimately loving these people and living for their victories and growth.
What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?
How different editing is from reporting and writing. An editor is a trusted partner, a blind-spot detector, a high-stakes decision maker, a structural engineer. You do a lot more thinking about what you don’t see, what’s in the negative space: What Achilles’ heel might this premise have? The language is beautiful, but is the logic sound?
If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be and why?
A writer once called me Spanx because of the way I compress flabby prose. I hope I’m also like a camera drone that helps you see above the weeds and a construction site boss who knows when the scaffolding can come down.
What is the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?
Sometimes, you won’t see the perfect path from day one. You might be paralyzed by fear when you open a draft and the next step isn’t obvious. Learn to slow down, talk through the problems with the writer, roll the ball forward and trust the process. (Hat tip to Adam Playford for this great advice, which he likely won’t remember giving.)
When a lookout on the Titanic sounded the alarm, “Iceberg right ahead,” on April 14, 1912, what he feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic, but the mountain beneath. That’s because only about one-tenth of an iceberg pierces the water’s surface.
The same principle—the theory of omission, or what Ernest Hemingway called ”the iceberg” theory—holds true in news writing.
Effective journalists always gather more information than they need. By the time you’ve finished a 15-inch story or a 60-second broadcast package, you may have interviewed half a dozen people and pored over a stack of background materials, including sheaves of reports, press releases, statements, and internet research.
Too often, we sink our stories with information we can’t bear to part with, even if it’s not relevant. “But I spent two hours interviewing the Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Non-Essential Information,” we wail. “I need four paragraphs to describe that room.”
When our editor says, “keep it short,” or the copy desk sends word to “trim by a third,” we moan. “I don’t know what to cut. It’s all great stuff.”
Stephen Buckley, who shone as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, told me, “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story, so I overreport. Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”
“You can’t ever overdo it,” I replied. “You can’t overreport or research too much. But you can under think. You can under plan. You can under revise.”
WHAT LIES BENEATH
What makes a powerful story is all the work that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many journalists fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest power: making every word count.
Writers write best with an overabundance of material, as my mentor, Don Murray taught me.
Alix Freedman always kept in mind her Wall Street Journaleditor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”
That’s why the investigative reporter cataloged her reporting on a legal pad where she listed quotes, examples, statistics and themes she uncovered in her reporting.
Each got a grade. Only those marked “A” made it into print. Freedman’s aim was to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example,” she said. Not just a quote but “a quote on point.”
The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.
It’s a paradox, one of many contradictions that lie in the journalist’s path.