Thursday, October 12, 2006

Plagiarism's pain

Back in the early days of the Internet boom, I was an editor and producer at, the online operation of CNN's financial news network (The network is gone, but the Web site continues on as
Lou Dobbs was the boss. He ran the TV network and the Web site as well as hosting two TV shows. And he had a reputation for being a little on the nasty side.

One day a reporter from the Wall Street Journal called. He was upset, albeit in a low-key and professional way. He claimed that one of our reporters had plagiarized his work. We did a quick investigation and found he was right. One of our staffers had placed her byline on a Wall Street Journal story, and we had published the stolen story on our Web site.
We fired that reporter.
And then we braced ourselves for a meeting with Lou.
We gathered in a conference room near Lou's office. There was nervousness among us. We felt a sense of collective guilt. One of us had committed an unpardonable sin. We expected yelling from Lou. We worried that others would be fired for having failed to uncover the plagiarism ourselves.
But what we got was quite different.
Lou didn't raise his voice. No one was fired. Rather, Lou just seemed sad. And that sadness wound up filling the room ... displacing the anger, the fear, the guilt and whatever else we felt.
In the end we published an apology. And I think it was Lou who later called the Journal to express our regret. But even before I left that conference room I knew that in some unexplainable way we had all become better journalists -- not because of the plagiarism, not because we had fired the offender, not because we would be on guard in the future, not because we'd survived a scandal or learned a valuable lesson.
We were better journalists because Lou had reminded us that the appropriate response to plagiarism by one of your own isn't anger, it's pain.
I thought of that day again when I heard that Computerworld had been victimized by a plagiarist.
I know that the folks there have become better journalists because of what has happened.
And I know that because I see it in every word in this remarkable editorial by the magazine's editor-in-chief Don Tennant. Please give it a read.
(Special thanks to Martha for pointing me toward Don's editorial.)

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  1. Hi Paul,

    Great post. And a good ed memo by Tennant.

    Can you lend any insight into why this happens? Why did the reporter you were working with feel the need to plagiarize in the instance you referred to at CNNfn?

    I wonder why the reporter plagiarized the column in Computerworld?


  2. I am glad to see Computerworld's editor had the courage to openly confront this matter. At a previous publication where I toiled, a member of the editorial team twice attempted to plagiarize articles. I caught both attempts before the publication went to print. However, the publisher had a warped obsession with this editorial team player and brusquely dismissed the circumstances as an accidental failure to provide proper attribution to the original sources. That person was not fired, and I doubt that other publishers would be so lenient. In fact, that person is now the editor of the publication, though in fairness it should be noted that proper source attribution is now in place with every article being published.

  3. Hi guys,
    Matt -- I don't know about the situation at Computerworld.
    At CNNfn, I know that the reporter felt pressured. She wasn't very good, and she wasn't very productive, and I guess she began to look for shortcuts.
    Phil -- if there's one thing I've learned in this business it's that there's never a shortage of people willing to excuse unethical activity.