Journalism education and tips for journalists

Sunday, August 08, 2004

plagiarism, rewriting and ethics

I have been thinking a lot about plagiarism, rewriting and ethics over the past month or so.

Partly because I heard a couple of radio pieces on Swedish radio which comprised of content lifted from the New York Review of Books (nyrb) - and if fact attributed to them, though very briefly at the end, and had read a column in one of the evening papers that was lifted verbatim from the Weekend Financial Times with no attribution whatsoever.

But also because of the discussion, or to be more precise the lack of discussion, about accusations of plagiarism made against Dagens Nyheter´s Peter Borgström.

In an article in Stockholm Spectator it is convincingly shown [SEE THE EVIDENCE] that Borgström´s article "Hiphoppen rumsren" was taken from the New York Times article "Sweeten the Image, Hold the Bling-Bling,". The "borrowing" was admitted to by DN´s culture editor;

And thanks for pointing out Peter Borgström's article. I have since been in touch with him and he admits that the article was built on the one you cited from the New York Times. He regrets that he neglected to mention the source.

Dagens Nyheter's policy is clear on this point: the source should, of course, be stated if material is taken directly from another newspaper. Unfortunately violations of this rule are quite commonplace in the press; often because of lack of time, negligence or pure forgetfulness. I have no reason to doubt that the lack of references to the source was purely a mistake. Peter Borgström is well aware of our policy and I am convinced that it will not happen again.
Kind regards,
Lars Linder

What caught my attention was the line:
Unfortunately violations of this rule are quite commonplace in the press;

I agree! The violations are commonplace and it is unfortunate - to say the least.
But there was some comfort in the fact that Linder was aware of the mistake and Borgström was aware of the policy. Awareness is a wonderful thing.

That got me thinking about what we teach our students about the ethics of rewriting.
Then came the follow-up.

It seems that several of Bergströms articles were "borrowed" and that he seemed less aware of the policy than first believed. Even more problematic was the lack of awareness shown by Linder. When made aware of several more examples of non-creative rewriting (being kind here) his response was to see this as a personal attack on his reporter (and in effect on him as an editor).

Mr. Moynihan,

I don't really understand your great interest in Peter Borgström's articles in Dagens Nyheter. Nor do I deem it necessary to examine further some general findings of detective work that, for unclear reasons, is being directed towards individual employees. In other words, I don't want anything to do (ta del av) with loosely founded accusations when it comes to such serious matters.

But if you, or other readers, have well-founded accusations of this kind against articles published by us, I, of course, would like to be made aware of them.

Kind regards,
Lars Linder

This raises a number of important points

  • What are the ethical boundaries for rewriting as accepted by the Swedish media?
  • What help do we give our students to see the problem and deal with it?
  • Why is there such a tendency to close ranks in the Swedish media when criticism is leveled against it?

Interestingly there is no mention of plagiarism in the discussion document on ethics from the Swedish Union of journalists.
Nytt etisktregelverkför medierna?- diskussionsunderlag från Journalistförbundets etikutredning

I will get back to this.


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