Todos os dias. Cada vez mais. Em todo o lado. Um problema muito sério do jornalismo mundial, analisado na Columbia Journalism Review.
Fareed Zakaria’s case highlights news organizations’ ethical grey areas
Some of Fareed Zakaria’s past and present publications are finally facing the music, even though they won’t acknowledge what it sounds like. Plagiarism accusations have dogged the CNN host and Washington Post columnist for years, though the drumbeat has crescendoed in recent months. Corrections and apologies have been added to a wide array of his previous work. But Zakaria appears in no danger of losing his prestigious jobs. Outcry within the journalistic community, meanwhile, has been unexpectedly mute, with many discussions focused on the semantic question of whether Zakaria’s mistakes constitute what some newsorganizations consider an unforgivable sin.
Zakaria’s high-profile case underlines the media’s long struggle with plagiarism — just not the struggle you’d expect. A review of examples from the past quarter-century shows that journalists have continuously grappled not only with the definition of plagiarism, but also how to respond to it. Punishment has been consistently inconsistent. And opinions vary on whether such sinners should be allowed back in the church. All of this comes as digital journalism continues to redraw the boundaries of originality, and the ease with which plagiarism is spotted continues to grow.
“Fabrication, obviously, is very black and white,” said Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society and a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald in Illinois. Such was the case with onetime New Republic scribe Stephen Glass, subject of a profile in the magazine’s recent anniversary issue, and Jonah Lehrer, an ex-New Yorker writer whose book deals grabbed headlines last week. “When it comes to plagiarism and punishment for it, the reason it’s so difficult is that it is more grey.”
And it always has been. A CJR cover story in 1995 analyzed 20 cases of plagiarism in the previous seven years, concluding, “Punishment is uneven, ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses.” Laura Parker was fired from The Post in 1991 for lifting quotes from the Associated Press and Miami Herald. Denver Post columnist Ken Hamblin, meanwhile, was suspended for two months in 1994 after he copied five paragraphs from a Rocky Mountain News report. “The sin itself carries neither public humiliation nor the mark of Cain,” CJR’s Trudy Lieberman wrote. “Some editors will keep a plagiarist on staff or will knowingly hire one if talent outweighs the infraction.”
A University of Maryland study found similar ambiguity in 76 newspaper plagiarism cases between 1997 and 2006. Forty-three of those offenders — 56 percent — lost their jobs, with the rate of punishment steadily increasing from minor to major to repeated infractions. Perhaps more interestingly, the papers’ word choice in publicly responding to those crimes largely correlated with their eventual sanctions — “plagiarism” typically garnered termination while synonymously described offenses earned lesser punishments.
A September analysis by Politico reporter Dylan Byers and two media ethics experts argued that Zakaria had indeed plagiarized a number of articles by “patch writing,” small changes to language that mask theft of larger ideas. “Case by case, the examples here qualify more as violations or misdemeanors than serious crimes,” Byers wrote. “But taken together, they show an undeniable pattern of behavior.” Disputing such behavior is a hard case to make without more details from Zakaria. The writer and TV host has remained relatively silent other than an August email to Politico rebutting some of the charges. He and CNN did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story.
On Nov. 7, Newsweekadded editor’s notes to seven of Zakaria’s columns from 2001 to 2010, saying they “borrowed extensively” from other sources “without attribution.” Slate did the same just days later for a 1998 article that “failed to properly attribute quotations and information.” After Our Bad Media last week highlighted questionable Zakaria pieces in The Washington Post, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt acknowledged “problematic sourcing” in five of those columns and has since amended four of them with editor’s notes.
The actions came two years after Zakaria was briefly suspended by CNN and Time for plagiarizing a column on gun control — a “terrible mistake,” he said in a statement then. Similar allegations have piled up this year, thanks largely to Our Bad Media’s anonymous watchdogs. Yet Zakaria has remained on air at CNN and in The Post’s opinion lineup, despite the organizations’ harsher punishment in recent years for similar ethical lapses. What’s more, the media outlets that publicly reprimanded Zakaria have been loathe to use the “p” word in describing his missteps.