I’ve never told this story publicly, partially because I wasn’t blogging at the time and partially because I imagined someone knocking on my door and beating me to death for temporarily delaying his career. Now, thirteen years later, I assume it’s probably safe to tell the story.
Some early morning in June 2002, I was reading online about a new documentary that detailed the experiences of the 1972 US Men’s Olympic basketball team. For some reason, no doubt because I was avoiding completing debate research I should have been working on, I kept reading stories about the team—and the horrible officiating that cost them the gold medal. Somewhere about the fifteenth link, I noticed something odd: an online encyclopedia seemed to have the exact same language as the initial news column I had read, word for word. I went back to the original story in the Salt Lake Tribune, and there it was: a paragraph of about 180 words, 180 words that the reporter had lifted from the online source without attribution.
I was outraged: as an English teacher, I’d punished fourteen year-old students for similar infractions, and here was a reporter at a mid-major newspaper lifting online material for his column. So I fired off an e-mail to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, not expecting an answer.
A few weeks later, though, I received a large envelope from Salt Lake City. In it was the complete copy of the June 30 edition of the Tribune, which included this:
When a journalist breaches reader trust, even when it is unintentional, it affects the newspaper’s credibility. I loathe disciplining staff members in public, but we all are quasi-public figures when it comes to our work and there are certain transgressions in this business that require public discussion for a clean closure…. A byline attached to a piece of writing means the prose is original to the author. Period. There is no excuse for plagiarism, but reasons are cited: In a hurry . . . got sloppy . . . cut a corner . . . was careless . . . wasn’t thinking . . . meant to attribute, but forgot. In hardly any instance is plagiarism pre-meditated.
The reporter was put on probation, but by all appearances, has redeemed himself from this professional error and continued to work in journalism. I’ve never felt totally okay with what happened to him, as I didn’t want to do harm to a stranger, but I suspect that, having been caught plagiarizing relatively early in his career, he learned a valuable lesson.
That’s the thing about plagiarism: many people need a reminder that it’s wrong. Whether it’s noted historians, political candidates, high school students or journalists, the most valuable lesson one can learn about plagiarism may not even be ethical, but practical: if you do it, you could well be caught. So when I read newspaper stories in the Missoulian that are plagiarized and both contact the editor and write about without receiving a response, or when the Independent Record briefly plagiarizes my brilliant satire before making it disappear, I have to wonder if I shouldn’t hold my students to high standards of academic integrity, because surely it’s not fair to punish a ninth grader for something that some adults can get away with without any trouble at all, especially when those adults expressed such horrified indignation about someone else’s plagiarism in the past.
In the end, of course, I’ll keep checking for plagiarism. Sorry, kids. A writer’s words and ideas are her own, and better to learn that lesson when the punishment is little more than wounded pride and having to rewrite a paper.