Journalistic Ethics and Theft

Jane Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times lays out a pretty convincing case that Eric Pfeiffer of the Washington Times used quotes from an article she did, as well as some from other reporters, in a story without attribution. Jane Hamsher does her one better, noting that she has done original reporting on several stories that were then run with by major media outlets with no acknowledgement.

One wonders what they’re teaching at J-School. Bloggers, most of whom have no formal journalistic training, seem to instinctively understand that we are supposed to acknowledge the sources of our stories, preferably linking back to the original when an online version exists. Why don’t mainstream reporters do this more consistently?

Noting that someone else did some work that you’re adding to does not diminish that contribution. Indeed, it signals depth of research. So why not do the right thing?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    One wonders what they’re teaching at J-School.

    Every j-school I’ve run across takes plagiarism very seriously. I have spent considerable time in my own classes discussing attribution – even of quotes taken from other news sources. But just as importantly, not everyone who works as a journalist went to a j-school. I couldn’t find a bio of Eric Pfeiffer in searching google, so it’s possible he’s a poli sci major who wrote for the conservative magazine at princeton, for all we know.

    More to the point, the question is not “what are they teaching,” but rather “whether they are learning.” For instance, I know of no one at Maryland who would condone what Jayson Blair did, and yet he somehow managed to get through and make it to the New York Times to do it, seeing no compulsion to do otherwise.

    As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water …

  2. bryan says:

    Why don’t mainstream reporters do this more consistently?

    Who’s to say they don’t? Do you have some sort of evidence that this is more widespread than a few anecdotes about a few bad apples? With over 1,800 newspapers in America, along with TV and radio outlets, I think you’d see a much wider hue and cry if there wasn’t consistent attribution.

  3. bryan says:

    Update: Pfeiffer is apparently a graduate of the University of Oregon school of journalism. However, my point still stands re: consistency and what they are teaching in J-school.

  4. James Joyner says:

    bryan: But these are all guys working at major papers, not the Podunck Daily Gazette. And it does seem that there are a lot of these instances in the major papers. Lifting quotes from other reporters’ interviews without attribution seems to happen all the time and is clearly intended to make it appear the reporter interviewed those people. The other practice, stealing a story lead from a blog or lesser paper, is hard to prove since one’s inspiration is hard to pin down.

  5. bryan says:

    And it does seem that there are a lot of these instances in the major papers. Lifting quotes from other reportersÂ’ interviews without attribution seems to happen all the time and is clearly intended to make it appear the reporter interviewed those people.

    Seems to happen all the time? How many exactly, James? I know of the guy from the Washington Times. What others? Give me real instances, not just “a lot.” Are you referring to specific instances, or just the two you cite in your post?

    I grant you that the practice is repugnant and violates the spirit of journalism. But in order to say this is rampant, it is incumbent upon you to at least provide some sort of data beyond “seems to happen all the time.”

    And I’ll again put it to you like this: Even taking that there are 100 top newspapers in the U.S. Each one of those newspapers puts out how many stories per day written by staff reporters? Combine that with the output of wire service reporters and the sheer amount of information coming out of just the top 100 papers is astronomical. To say that missing attribution is a huge problem would require that there be AT LEAST one story a day that features this type of plagiarism. I find that highly doubtful.

    Jane Hamsher seems to have a beef with the NYT, and I don’t blame her. But I’m not ready to paint the entire profession with the well-worn brush that equates to blogger triumphalism.

  6. James Joyner says:

    bryan, There have certainly been numerous publicized instances of both.

    As to some statistically significant number, that would be hard to achieve without some database of instances being kept. Certainly, I don’t have the resources to keep tabs on 100 papers and match up quotes. Most likely go undetected.

    I have had, for example, TCS columns lifted and published whole by newspapers without so much as a note.

    The other thing that I notice happening rather routinely, that is maybe in a grey area given the nature of subscriptions, is for wire copy quotes and press releases to be written into stories without citation.

  7. Although I am not a a j-school graduate, my wife did attend j-school, undergrad, with none other than U-Maryland’s (in)famous alum Jayson Blair. She noted to me that the biggest change in what she sees as the news business is not to be first and accurate, but to simply be first. Corrections can be put out later and buried.

    In the modern 24-hour news atomosphere, being first means being covered as a news source, i.e. “CNN is reporting” or “The New York Times Reports” which lends (or so it is thought) to credibility as a news source.

    The problem now is that the citizen’s check on the MSM, bloggers, can often pick apart a story collectively in a matter of hours. But the news business has not caught up to such a mindset. There remains a desire to be first. When the desire becomes “to be first and accurate” again, then you will see a shift away from this practice of quoting without attribution (or plagarizing) of stories.

  8. LJD says:

    Oh… I thought it said:

    ‘Journalistic Ethics and TheLeft’

    I thought it was a trick question… LOL