Sunday, March 20, 2011

Washington Post ombudsman: Mince no words on plagiarism, in view of the demands of journalism as a profession

The Washington Post’s new ombudsman, Patrick P. Pexton, has a column Sunday March 20, p A19, “The damage done by Post reporter Sari Harwitz’s plagiarism”, link here

Pexton minces no words, and calls plagiarism “theft”.  His essay points out the work that reporters do, gathering original material (I lost the chance to do that last night by falling ill right before the SLDN Annual Dinner – see my GLBT blog), and the tight deadlines that they must meet in submitting their stories, with perfection and fact checking.  Even for a professional journalist, the possibility that one could skirt a deadline by cutting and pasting, might prove too much, just once.

I don’t think Pexton would say this bluntly, but it certainly makes informal blogging look lazy in comparison. Of course, usually, blogging makes a lot less than a reporter’s salary (not always – look at Heather Armstrong and “dooce”). That could help explain the desire of some smaller newspapers to go after bloggers who repost their stories (although the “champerty” of Righthaven is another matter).

It also can help explain the difference in business models for newspapers -- to put up "paywalls" for formerly free content online.  A subscription to a global paper may work for the consumer, but not for a small local paper which perceives injury from the low cost, no overhead competition from bloggers. (The New York Times recently announced the start of its paywall; the Washington Post has not done so, at least yet.)

Paid reporters must maintain public objectivity or neutrality, too.  Back in the 1990s, a reporter for a Tacoma, WA paper was transferred to copy-editing when her public advocacy of lesbian rights became known, and at the time, a state court upheld the action. Maybe that wouldn’t happen today, but it makes a point.

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