A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Society

Exclusive! Scoop! First with the news! Journalism has a plagiarism problem

Crossfire between aggrieved journalists accusing one another of lifting stories is rife on social media. As newsrooms shrink and competition spirals, who’s defending reporters’ rights? Benjamin Silvester reports. 

Exclusive! Scoop! First with the news! Journalism has a plagiarism problem

Plagiarism is a persistent phenomenon, and one for which there appears to be little recourse even for staffers in established news organisations, says media expert Tim Dunlop. Growing ranks of freelancers are even more vulnerable, and for most journalists a legal response just isn’t practical. Image: Shutterstock

Words by Benjamin Silvester
 

In a dog-eat-dog media landscape where impactful journalism is prized currency, it is a cruel blow for any journalist to see his or her story – the hard labour of days, even weeks – ripped off by another organisation within minutes of publication.

And allegations of just such behaviour from aggrieved reporters are thick on the ground.

“Oh, Daily Mail. You ripped figures, facts and phrases from my story, you duplicated two breakouts, you even copied quotes from people I interviewed in my tiny home office,” tweeted News Corp’s national technology editor Jen Dudley-Nicholson last month.

“What do you do without AAP? Copy and paste @mattencarnacion’s whole story, change one or two words here or there but still keep EVERY quote and almost EVERY paragraph with a brief reference to AAP up top,” raged Australian Associated Press’ Scott Bailey.

“These days when Daily Mail steals one of my articles, (yesterday’s)  I don’t care anymore. There’s nothing anybody can do, nobody cares but me that my work has been stolen. So I’ve given up,” remarked news.com.au journalist Libby-Jane Charleston.

Such complaints from journalists are commonplace in social media, and while the response from the media-heavy ranks of the Twitterati is largely sympathetic, it also smacks of a resigned powerlessness.

“Bastards.”

“Shocking, how do they get away with this!”

“Send them an invoice, it’s your work.”

Whether it might be blamed on the relentless churn of the news cycle, demand for reader “eyeballs”, or sparsely populated newsrooms running on the scent of an oily rag, plagiarism appears to be thriving. And while individuals may howl their distress, there’s little evidence of any wholesale effort with the power or motivation to deal with the practice. As things stand, neither the law nor the myriad journalistic codes of ethics appear to have the power to shut the practice down.

Despite being called out loudly by the ABC’s Media Watch in 2018, the Daily Mail – regularly singled out as a repeat offender – continues to face allegations of plagiarism – among the latest being Dudley-Nicholson’s allegations that it had recycled her story on Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Responding to questions from The Citizen about Dudley-Nicholson’s tweet in particular, and the pattern of repeated accusations of plagiarism against it, a Daily Mail spokesperson rebuffed the claims. “This accusation is thrown around lazily about Daily Mail Australia, which writes exclusive stories every day and regularly sets the news agenda.”

Prominent freelancer and journalism academic Tim Dunlop says that in his years of observing the media, plagiarism has been a persistent phenomenon, and one for which there appears to be little recourse.  For reporters and editors inside news organisations it appears almost impossible to do anything about it, and the increasing ranks of freelancers are even more vulnerable.

“What’s a freelancer going to do? Even if you’re a member of the union, they might send a letter for you, but they’re not going to pursue a court case for you.”

Dunlop says that for most journalists a legal response just isn’t practical.

“The only weapon you’ve got is public shame, and [the offenders] are pretty shameless.”

Responding to questions from The Citizen, neither the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the union for Australian journalists) nor the Australian Copyright Council would venture an opinion on whether journalistic plagiarism was  a growing problem in the industry. But they also signalled little engagement on an issue that is a persistent concern for many journalists.

“(The) MEAA has not investigated an allegation against a MEAA Media member regarding plagiarism in recent memory – so MEAA is unable to determine if the issue if on the increase or not.” The alliance also said it “cannot investigate allegations against individual journalists who are not members”, suggesting it’s relatively hamstrung in combating the problem.

“The MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics encourages the attribution of information. Concerns about plagiarism can be taken up by media outlets and editors,” said the spokesperson.

The Copyright Council responded that it regularly receives “requests for information and advice in potential infringement situations from all sectors […] What we advise depends of course, on the facts presented in each case.  We have a dedicated information sheet for journalists which you can see on our website here.”

While freelancers are particularly vulnerable, lacking the resources and institutional support to defend their stories, even large media organisations like News Corp have struggled to gain satisfaction for alleged acts of plagiarism.

Back in June 2014, News Corp Australia threatened to sue the then newly established Daily Mail Australia for copying a series of exclusive stories. Daily Mail Australia responded by accusing News Corp Australia of stealing its content and the matter settled a few months later with both sides claiming victory.

Most news organisations explicitly forbid plagiarism in their code of ethics – although, notably, the Daily Mail does not mention plagiarism or the unauthorised use of other journalists’ work at all in its “code of practice”.

Yet, even without an explicit prohibition, the requirement for “honest and accurate reporting”, which is in every journalistic code, forbids such practices.

Established industry practice, when using substantial parts of another journalist’s or organisation’s article, is to provide clear attribution and a link back to the original piece. Yet most media organisations operating in Australia don’t cover this in their code of ethics. The only example The Citizen has identified in reviewing the codes of various Australian organisations is in The Guardian’s editorial code. It requires that reporters always attribute reproduced material, and always seek senior editorial authority to use the material.

The Daily Mail spokesperson said that when copying other journalists’ work, Daily Mail Australia “credits the original source and provides a link” according to “best industry practice”, “unlike others who routinely lift our content”. Yet none of the journalists and experts interviewed by The Citizen saw the practice of crediting the original source as an excuse for the wholesale or substantial reproduction of other journalists’ work.

Acknowledging that plagiarism has long been a problem in the industry, the US-based Poynter Institute created an “editor’s guide” several years ago to what they called “the unoriginal sin” of plagiarism.

The guide identified two main forms of journalistic recycling, distinguishing between plagiarism – that is, the wholesale lifting of text, and a perhaps more common practice it dubs “patchwriting”.

“Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material,” Poynter observes.

“It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.”

While not as blatant as plagiarism, patchwriting is equally damaging in the journalistic context, in that perpetrators are still not producing original reporting, and are likely not undertaking verification of the content or understanding the content beyond the basic grammar and syntax. As well as preying on real, shoe-leather reporting, it also risks perpetuating the spread of misinformation and “fake news”, and further eroding public trust in journalism.

Media monitoring platform Streem suggests that the Daily Mail’s editorial practices are symptomatic of a high volume “churn and burn” business model, with enormous pressure for journalists to publish as many articles as possible. Their analysis shows the five most prolific Australian journalists in the past year all worked for the Daily Mail, with some producing an average of 4.5 articles per day.

But the grievances of journalists run wider and deeper than a single publication.  On July 22, the day before accusing the Daily Mail of plagiarism, News Corp – specifically its subsidiary Fox Sports – was accused of lifting an entire article by the Australian Associated Press’ (AAP) Matt Encarnacion without attribution. This came just months after the decision by News Corp, Nine and The West Australian and Australian Community Media to sell the AAP service, deciding the newswire was too expensive.

The article was quickly removed once the whistle was blown (see a cached version here), but the incident could be seen as evidence of News Corp attempting to get for free something it once had to pay for. Fox Sports declined to respond to questions about the incident, despite several attempts.

The Citizen was unable to find any organisations systematically tracking instances of alleged journalistic plagiarism in Australia, which makes it impossible to determine the full scope of the problem and which way it is trending. But the imperatives of putting out news in an era of diminishing editorial resources would indicate that this is an area that deserves closer scrutiny.

The law against copying other people’s work is clear, says Associate Professor Jason Bosland, deputy director of the Centre for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne Law School.

“The relevant area of law is actually copyright law, [so] particularly if they’re reproducing entire articles, that would be copyright infringement.”

Bosland says that under copyright law it isn’t the idea that is protected, rather “it’s the expression of the idea”. The legal test is whether the defendant has taken “a substantial part” of the expression in the original article. While this line was difficult to draw in the abstract, many of the articles copied by the Daily Mail and others would be likely to infringe copyright, he says.

“It’s certainly likely that it would fall on the wrong side of the law, it’s just that the law is not being enforced.”

Asked whether there was any likelihood of the law changing in response to concerns around the unattributed recycling of original reporting, Bosland argues it is unlikely policy makers would even be thinking about the issue. “Media organisations have a right to sue if they believe their copyright has been infringed. The law’s fine. It’s the enforcement of the law which is perhaps lacking.”

The main issue, he says, is that in most cases a single news article isn’t something worth suing over. “With these kinds of low-value high-turnaround products, I don’t know that there is any sense in suing, given that enforcing legal rights is so expensive.”

So, what are the options for the average journalist? Get on Twitter to complain. As Tim Dunlop says, there is always the weapon of public shame.

Or, of course, you could always send them an invoice.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Jack Banister
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
  • Editor-In-Chief: Andrew Dodd
  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
Winner — BEST PUBLICATION 2016 Ossie Awards