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Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 15, 2012

The Complicated History of Journalistic Plagiarism

Filed under: Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Teaching — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:06 am

The past few weeks have given rise to a new round of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in journalism circles with two more plagiarism scandals. In the first, Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker was caught fabricating quotes of Bob Dylan [note to self: don’t mess with icons with large fan bases, they’ll figure it out every time] and then international relations pundit Fareed Zakaria was found to have lifted material for an op-ed piece from a Jill Lepore essay in The New Yorker. Both of these cases are serious, and are clear violations of modern standards of journalistic ethics (in their own ways).

However, these scandals and others like them can make teaching the history of journalism more difficult. Students, trained by their reading and their writing centers to sniff out plagiarism in their own work, instantly see it everywhere in the newspapers of the past (when they don’t also encounter rampant “bias,” that is). I want my students to understand the concept well enough that they don’t commit the act in their own work, but as in many areas students want to read the present back into the past. Seeing the historical context is difficult for students, and understanding that plagiarism itself has a history, and it doesn’t run the same course in every field of the written word.

It doesn’t help matters that both scholars and popular writers conflate past and present nearly as readily.  Robert Zaretsky argued in the Los Angeles Review of Books that Lehrer’s crime—that is, fabricating up quotes and statistics—was no worse than the “founder of [the historical] profession,” Thucydides. Just yesterday, the Huffington Post published an essay by Todd Andrlik entitled “How Plagiarism Made America.” Andrlik writes:

Without professional writing staffs of journalists or correspondents, eighteenth-century newspaper printers relied heavily on an intercolonial newspaper exchange system to fill their pages. Printers often copied entire paragraphs or columns directly from other newspapers and frequently without attribution. As a result, identical news reports often appeared in multiple papers throughout America. This news-swapping technique, and resulting plagiarism, helped spread the ideas of liberty and uphold the colonists’ resistance to British Parliament.

Andrlik is right in the first several sentences (indeed, if you know me, you know that these practices are central to my own work). But he’s just wrong to describe what printers in 1765 were doing as “plagiarism.” It wasn’t and it couldn’t have been, because it hadn’t been invented yet. (Neither, by the way, had “journalism” itself, nor for that matter objectivity.) Treating the practices of the eighteenth century as if they were aware of twenty-first-century norms does a disservice to the concept of plagiarism and to our understanding of how people acted in the past.

By definition, plagiarism is a transgression of norms: one’s writing should represent one’s own work and thought, and anything not in that category must be attributed, cited, or otherwise noted. A crude definition, yes, but I don’t think an unfair one. The problem is that in the eighteenth century the sharing of newspapers and reprinting of articles was the norm. Even more, it was the only way to survive, and printers themselves actively took part in sharing their newspapers with one another so that they could engage in the very process of reprinting and circulating these stories.

To work with students on this issue asks them to engage in an act that goes against two natural tendencies: they need to see the past “as a foreign country,” to borrow the phrase of L.P. Hartley, and they need to understand change over time. What we see clearly (and rightly) in our own time as an unethical act was to those in the period in question simply a standard operating procedure.

NB: Bradley Zakarin asked me on Twitter (and I am happy to oblige) to state clearly that I don’t intend to suggest that the practices of the past should be put in place now. We can (and should!) have a discussion about what constitutes plagiarism, why it’s wrong, what penalties should be in effect, but I’m not suggesting we go back to the “free love” Sixties (Seventeen-Sixties, of course).

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