Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's not that difficult to be original

        Plagiarism: An act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author.

        OK, I plagiarized the above from definitions at dictionary.com. Just want to give credit where it's due.
        Point is, I just don't get plagiarism, or actually, I don't understand why people resort to plagiarism. And it's everywhere -- books, magazines, school work, music, television.
        But I really don't get it in the newspaper business.
        In 40-plus years of newspapering, I experienced a half dozen people being fired for plagiarism at the time I was working for the same publication. Here's the odd part of that: In each case, I felt the person had a lot of talent.
        So why resort to copying someone else's work -- or in other words, stealing it? There are so many ways it can be detected these days; it's so much easier in the computer age.
        Really, I was surprised each time it happened at my newspaper. And only once did I suspect it was happening, the only time that the firing occurred in the sports department.
        In this case, it was with book reviews, and it was apparent that the person doing the writing -- or the copying -- was churning out the reviews far too rapidly to actually have read all of the books. So the book review material was coming from a borrowed source.
        Which -- and it was only a matter of when -- added up to ... see ya. Please seek employment elsewhere.
        It's just a rule of Journalism 101: Don't plagiarize.
        I've been guilty of thousands of mistakes, some of them more serious than I want to detail. But I never intentionally borrowed any written material from another source, at least not without attribution.
          So the material under my byline were my own thoughts, stupid as they might be at times. There were a couple of instances, though, when "The Associated Press contributed to this report" line was omitted. Didn't mean for that to happen.
        A case of plagiarism hit me hard when I was in college. It left a lasting impression.
        Midway through the 1967 football season at Louisiana Tech, I came into the sports information office one day after a mid-morning class, and the sports information director -- who will go nameless here -- was gone to lunch. On his desk was a copy of The Daily Oklahoman sports section.
        In his typewriter was the day's Tech football release. I couldn't help but notice because I also was due to write something that day. 
        I also noticed that the release in the typewriter was worded exactly like the story on the University of Oklahoma football story in the newspaper on the desk. The only difference was "Louisiana Tech" instead of "Oklahoma" and Tech players' names subbed in for Oklahoma players.
        What the heck was this?
        What it was was plagiarism.
        I knew it was wrong. I didn't take it well. When the man returned from lunch, I confronted him (no one else was there), and it wasn't pretty. I made it clear that I didn't want anything to do with it -- or him.
        Talked to Coach Joe Aillet, in his first year as athletic director only after his brilliant 26-year football coaching career, and we decided that I should go work in the journalism department editing The Tech Talk. Journalism professors Kenneth Hewins and Pete Dosher were happy to have me there, and I was able to continue drawing my work-study supplement.                                 
        Giving up the student SID job certainly was not my preference. It was difficult.
        Some three months later, the SID was gone -- by mutual agreement. As soon as it became known that he was leaving, Coach Aillet sent word that I could return to and run the SID department for the rest of the school year, through the end of basketball season and the spring sports.
        (In fact, that was the case each of my last three years at Tech, with the SID leaving early each year. Guess I kept running those guys off.)
        Anyway, that was my first significant lesson in plagiarism.
        Still, I made a big mistake early in my career ... as a copy editor. A fellow staffer, covering an NFC Championship Game, sent in his story and it was a couple of inches short for my layout. Instead of adjusting the layout (making a photo larger, which wasn't easy in those days before digital), I used a wire story to add a couple of paragraphs to the story and give it a different (and what I thought, cute) ending.
        I spoiled the guy's story. He wasn't happy, and rightfully so. I should have adjusted the layout or made the story a sidebar or separate element. Another lesson learned.
        I know people who were accused by others in their sports department of plagiarizing material for their columns. I can't judge if it was true or not, but they kept their job.
        I knew one columnist who used the same column -- a humor column -- he wrote in three different cities (three different jobs), and maybe even a fourth time. I suppose, it was kosher to plagiarize himself. 
        It's also not unusual for a writer or columnists to use portions of previous columns or stories for background and simply top them with fresh facts or fresh angles ... or maybe even just one fresh fact or angle.
        Plagiarism? Probably not. Laziness? Maybe. Convenience? Certainly.
        The worst case of plagiarism I saw, though, happened in Louisiana in the mid-1980s. A friend of mine, one of the state's veteran sportswriters and one of its most respected, wrote a column about Ralph Ward, the longtime basketball coach at McNeese State. Much of the column was about Ward's great success with his teams of the 1950s.
        A much younger writer from downstate "borrowed" much of the column, word for word -- including personal references of 1950s tales from the older writer. He didn't even change the "I" references ... and he didn't attribute the column to the original writer.
        It was ridiculous, a joke.
        The guy not only kept his job, he later was awarded the Distinguished Service in Journalism Award in Louisiana.
        Figure that one out.      
        And, well, I'm not making up this story -- or borrowing it. It's an original.

1 comment:

  1. From Rod Chandler: Excellent story. A simple and kind act of attribution would have saved a lot of embarrassment.