The Overlooked Gap Between Journalism and Plagiarism
Andhyta Firselly Utami
“Writers would always befriend writers because they naturally love reading, but talkers don’t always befriend talkers because they don’t always listen,” wrote Puti Karina Puar, a virtual friend on Twitter. This intriguing premise about writers makes a lot of sense, especially when we relate it to the shocking news of Fareed Zakaria’s suspension by Time magazine and CNN due to alleged plagiarism last week.
I believe Zakaria, like other journalists and writers out there, loves reading. It is quite easy for us to imagine him strolling through pages of books and magazines, be it for professional or leisure purposes. Even putting this love-scene aside, journalists cannot simply submit a lengthy post to prominent newspaper offices before they gather adequate information upon the subject. How can a person do this effectively? Through reading other people’s reports, indeed. How did the previous reporters do this, you ask? By reading the reports made before theirs.
It is by no means strange for journalists to spend most of their time on reading, screening various details upon a certain subject, while also jolting down notes. When they finally double-click their Microsoft Word icon on their computer and start typing down an article they will declare as their own, does this mean they fabricate other people’s thoughts — making them a thief? A similar question posed by columnist David Carr in his recent New York Times article: How is journalism then distinct from plagiarism?
I would argue that it all comes down to two points: Appropriate credits-distribution and sufficient digesting process. Just as biologists handle DNAs, writers and journalists should treat other people’s notions very carefully: no matter how microscopic, each of them contains unique particles that define the overall sentiment of the person behind it.
True journalists would endorse one main concern and render facts that support their argument. The overall idea may or may not completely belong to them, but when it doesn’t, they will acknowledge the work of others — not because they do not want to be perceived as copycats, but more because they respect thoughts. In order to do so, they will mention whom they get the information from, how it is relevant to the big idea, as well as what other arguments that can support it. I call these three steps as necessary ‘digesting process.’
Plagiarists, on the other hand, cannot care less about such process, and will simply snatch quotes and lines from every corner of the Web, and put it on their article whenever it seems fit. When this is not enough, they will go on to manipulate quotes (like New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer did in his latest book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” where he invented quotes by legendary folk singer Bob Dylan), and do other horrible things just for the sake of composing wonderful columns.
Don’t get plagiarists wrong, though. I think they also love reading (because otherwise they would not have anything to plagiarize from), they just don’t pay as much respect.
At the end of the day, when you really love an article because it sparks new ideas, you know that avoiding plagiarism is as simple as acknowledging it in your writings.