Plagiarism and Attribution Tests for Journalists: A Must or Not?

If there’s anything journalists know, it’s how not to plagiarize in our writing. Right? Right?! Wrong, apparently.

Wednesday Jim Romenesko broke the news on his blog that Digital First Media (DFM) has been having some issues with their reporters failing to attribute sources correctly in their work and as a result, their leadership team is asking everyone to take a “plagiarism and attribution quiz.” In a memo from Steve Buttry to DFM staff members, Digital Transformation Editor Buttry wrote that there had been “too many plagiarism cases recently in DFM newsrooms” (read the full memo, first published by Romenesko, here).

On top of the five-question quiz, reporters will have to complete a webinar regarding Web journalism and ethics. In the staff note, Buttry cited DFM’s reputation, “integrity” and “standards” as reasons to encourage all DFM journalists to go through the quick training.

Given DFM’s reach and readership, you’d think their reporters would be top-notch — to me, it is the bare minimum for a journalist to know that ANY time you use someone else’s idea or words, that person or entity should be sourced. While I think it’s a smart move on Buttry and DFM’s part to follow through with this exercise, I wonder what the protocol is now for hiring young writers. I mean, are J-school students not being taught how to attribute sources and properly aggregate by their professors?

A lesson perhaps being learned by DFM, an ethics test should be put in place for every reporter in any publishing capacity, preferably before that person is hired and allowed access to readers — even if the answers seem obvious (and trust me, I took the quiz, and the right answers stick out like a sore thumb), it’s important for news organizations to cover their bases. Just like Buttry said, “we have had too many instances to presume that our staffs know our standards. We need to be explicit and make sure everyone has the training.” Indeed.

I guess I just grew up in a time when the difference between citing sources for the purpose of adding value and context to your argument and just plain stealing was absolutely beat into students. In my upper-level high school classes and college courses, there was a zero-tolerance policy for any failure to attribute your sources, no matter what. It didn’t matter if you had pulled one sentence or an entire thesis — it was the biggest no-no, ever, and I was always terrified of accidentally doing it.

As professional writers who are part of a profession that, I believe, as a whole still values and strives for honor and integrity in our work, we should be checking compulsively to make sure that we’re never pulling any phrases or thoughts that could even be mistaken for someone else’s into our stories. The risk is just too great.

I understand that the waters of online journalism can sometimes be murky — ‘how can I work with this citizen’s tweet if it’s not yet verified?’ ‘Is this piece of editorial the publisher’s content or an advertiser’s content?’ among those concerns. That kind of thing, sure, but not, ‘I just used information and/or words that came from someone else’s brain, but I’m not going to give them any credit for it.’

Hopefully DFM can nip this in the bud quickly before they’ve got a Jonah Lehrer fiasco on their hands. Granted, Lehrer plagiarized himself, but it’s still the problem of refusing to rely on your own original reporting and writing ability and resorting to laziness.

Can’t we all just agree to avoid using the words and ideas of others as much as humanly possible? And when we need to, provide proper name and publication attribution as well as a link. Done and done.