Content is King: quick thoughts on why plagiarism seems to be growing
I’m alarmed by the number of plagiarism incidents that have been uncovered recently. The quick succession of those cases — ESPN entertainment writer ( copied almost directly from Wikipedia), ESPNews (where an anchor read on air text from the basketball blog RealGM.com, Jonah Lehrer (who made up quotes from Bob Dylan for his book “Imagine,” and now Fareed Zakaria (who plagiarized a New Yorker writer on the topic of gun control)–has made me start thinking about why all this is happening.
Two things jump out to me — the need to produce so much content all the time AND the quest for notoriety in an industry that rewards it above all else.
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The other day I complained on twitter that I’d seen a job advertised at Bleacher Report that required the person to post 4-9 times a day. Michael Schottey, Bleacher Report’s National NFL writer, told me that that’s a standard amount and to look at ESPN blogs and Yahoo blogs and get back to him.
Well…yeah. That’s kinda of my point. Most sites are posting too much and heightening the chances that people will plagiarize or be otherwise unoriginal and unengaging. I mean how fresh can you be after 4 or 5 posts even if they’re short? The goal with most sites seems to be to cover as much ground as possible for the sake of SEO, clicks and God knows whatever else.
It takes effort to weed through all the crap. There’s lots of information out there but not enough to feed millions of blogs and writers with fresh content every day. That’s how something like Serena doing the C-walk after a win or a few tweeters talking about Gabby Douglas’ hair becomes a HUGE story. The thirst for information and the need to fill these quotas of content is out of control. It takes 24 hour news cycle to the extreme.
And by the way, I don’t even bother with cable news AT ALL even when tragedies happen because I don’t need someone to talk me through something repeating the same things over and over again or WORSE–speculating about things or rushing to be first and saying things that have zero basis (like the Colorado shooter being a member of the Tea Party). Content! Content! CONTENT!
But back to the effect that all this content creation has on writers — under pressure to produce, plagiarism and rewording without independent research becomes more attractive. Ego is part of it and this is no excuse – but it is a reality of writing in the new millennium.
On the fame thing, Freddie deBoe wrote this re: Lehrer and nailed it:
I have been reading paid political and cultural commentary voraciously for a decade, and it seems to me to be a broken culture. Totally broken. The professional and social conditions of the profession are not in any sense oriented towards producing truthful, challenging, or moral outcomes. The large majority of the professional opinion writers I follow have a primary goal of advancing their personal brand, that horrific social-professional fusion that views getting page views and getting invitations to the latest DC grabass cocktail hour as merely two facets of the same effort. There are important exceptions, including people whose politics I reject entirely. (Take Conor Friedersdorf, who’s wrong about most everything but also very principled and very aware of these problems.) When writers change publications or think tanks all the time, and when friendly relations with editors and bigwigs matter vastly more for professional advancement than telling the truth, you get writing that’s written to demonstrate insider status and fealty to the proper authorities. Additionally, the medium is currently obsessed with cleverness, which has nothing to do with wisdom or honesty. Jonah Lehrer was inevitable.
deBoe is talking specifically about political/cultural writing but this is applicable to sports writing as well. Opportunities are based more and more on the person’s byline or level of notoriety. For that reason the idea of “personal branding” as sprung up a cottage industry of people across genres who know for a fact that they don’t have to “know” anything they just have to build an image of knowing things and coast on that shit until someone exposes them as charlatan. This approach of name-before-everything bites not only publishers in the ass but readers as well. This may be a low blow (I’m known for those!) but I’ve read plenty Fareed Zakaria articles and I’ve also seen him on television. 2 out of 5 doctors consider his writing and his commentary a natural alternative to a prescription sleep aid. Zakaria was coasting and Time and CNN let him do it.
The worst part of all of this is the insulting way that the culprits apologize.
For example, here is ESPN’s raggedy excuse for why they copied content from RealGM and read it on air:
Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, told us that a “SportsCenter” segment producer copied part of RealGM’s account into Cotter’s script, then erred by only partially rewriting it after ESPN and other news outlets worked to match the story.
Doria said ESPN credits news entities that break news, but then works to confirm information itself and watches what other organizations are reporting. As other news entities begin to report the same story and ESPN itself gets confirmation from sources it deems credible, the credit is typically changed to “sources.” (Doria noted that “blockbuster” stories are handled differently, with ESPN continuing to give credit to appropriate outlets for them for some time.)
Doria said that ESPN confirmed the Howard report, which Yahoo also had reported. A “SportsCenter” producer then copied the RealGM story about Howard from the newswire into Cotter’s script, changing the reference to RealGM’s reporting to “sources” based on the twin confirmations. The next step was to rewrite the item for Cotter to read on the air. But that step was never taken, a mistake Doria blamed on a “lack of communication” as the producer tackled breaking news.
“This stuff happens from time to time,” Doria said, adding that “you’d like it never to happen.”
ESPN told Poynter that they didn’t discipline the producer responsible for this because “people make mistakes.” Part of this response is a result of ESPN not really wanting to acknowledge the other kids in the sandbox. Regardless, this is an arrogant response and paves the way for ESPN to plagiarize again and say, again, that “this stuff happens from time to time.” This stuff? You mean stealing someone else’s exact words?
I’m sure it does happen from time to time. But it shouldn’t.