Professional Thieves

The 11 December issue was reruns from 1995 since I was down with the flu. One of those stories was this one (which dealt with trying to embarrass journalists into better writing so there aren’t so many errors in the paper). It was only the second “rerun column” ever in 11-1/2 years of weekly True issues.

Well Guess What? That made it really easy to discover that there are newspapers out there that don’t buy True as a feature column (yes, I did sell it to newspapers as a column), but use items from it anyway! That’s absolutely theft. They stole something I sell to make a living.

No longer a proud logo.

One of the culprits was the Toronto Star, who even used my tagline as if it was their words. I probably would have caught them, but someone else did first: Regret the Error, an entertaining newspaper blog.

RtE’s editor wrote me on New Year’s Day to ask if I was aware of the plagiarism, and would I comment on it? I was not, and did:

I’m a university-trained journalist and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. This isn’t how I learned journalism. I learned to give proper attribution. I learned to have a second source for items that are dubious. And, most importantly, I learned to have respect for the process of journalism.

Where is that respect and professionalism now? We can’t just blame Jayson Blair. Plagiarism and made-up stories is just the most outrageous fact of life now. We have long had typos and grammar blunders that would make Strunk and White seethe — so many that they’re not even worthy of comment, even ridicule, anymore.

What will be the ultimate result? We’re already seeing it: people are forgetting about newspapers and turning to TV and the Internet to get their news, because they just can’t trust newspapers anymore. We have the L.A. Times putting a hoax story on its front page. We have major city papers lifting items from a columnist, even though it’s a cinch they’ll get caught.

Newspapers scream and cry that people just don’t care anymore. They don’t get it: people do care. They care that the news is correctly reported. They care that it’s written well. They care that it’s edited well. They care that proper attributions are made. And they’re just not getting that from newspapers anymore, so they’re moving to other media where they can get it (or, at least, think they can). And it’s not fun to watch newspapers take yet another step into the depths right before my eyes.

He ran the entire comment verbatim.

Then, today, the newspaper industry bible, Editor & Publisher, ran with the story too.

It’s not the only recent newspaper blunder of taking stuff from the Internet: the Los Angeles Times recently ran a front page(!) story that a reporter sourced from the Internet; it turned out to be a hoax.

This is Why Newspapers are Failing

Silverman’s book (available on Amazon*) collected numerous gaffes.

It’s astounding to me that in this era of instant communications that newspapers ever attempt plagiarism or lazy sourcing practices, and then think they can get away with it. That newspapers don’t understand that the Public Trust is involved here, and their continued violation of that trust is the reason fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers anymore.

This stuff matters! Newspapers are supposed to be the defenders of high professional standards, not the leader in savaging them.

I am extremely careful to state where I get the facts I use to write my stories, even though that’s not required by copyright law. I’m very careful to use only the facts, not the “flavor” of how they’re put together, only partly because that is required by copyright law. This isn’t rocket science (and, as a guy who worked for 10 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I know rocket science when I see it).

If a guy working out of a spare bedroom at home understands this, why don’t supposedly professional newspaper editors and publishers get it? As I told Regret the Error, as a journalism school graduate and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, “it’s not fun to watch newspapers take yet another step into the depths right before my eyes.”

Hiding in the Shadows

Within days, the Star removed the story from their web site and issued a half-hearted correction. RtE followed up [no longer online], and editorialized:

Rather than explain how the writer came to select the item and then fail to verify it, the Star merely mentions that it was a decade old and ‘re-posted’ on Cassingham’s site. It does not apologize to Cassingham. It does not explain that what was done is against Star policy and why. It does not detail any disciplinary action, or why none was taken. Let’s be clear: We’re not exactly calling for heads to roll, but the Star has to meet a higher standard of disclosure. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in a column from the Public Editor. But, for now, this inadequate correction is almost worse than no correction at all.

Sadly, the newspapers involved counted on something: that if they just deleted and hid, it would blow over. And indeed it did. Next time, I’m turning the case over to my attorney for action.

Update: The case made Regret the Error’s 2006 “Crunks List” (worst gaffes of the year), in the “Best Abuse of Archives” section.

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