Friday, November 16, 2007

Another take on journalism prof's "plagiarism"

Bob Stepno, a professor in the Media Studies Department at Radford University, offers another perspective on the allegations that University of Missouri Professor John Merrill plagiarized a student newspaper in his column for the Columbia Missourian.

"Using Web links might have saved a distinguished Missouri journalism professor the sight of this nightmare headline: Journalism Professor Admits Plagiarism," Stepno says in his blog.

"I think it's a bad headline based on a bum rap. He didn't deserve it. The word 'plagiarism' implies much worse offense than this case, which may be routine practice for many newspaper columnists: He quoted people. He identified the people he quoted. He just didn't identify a publication where he read those quotes. All that's missing from his column is a link to the earlier story."

As we reported earlier this week, Merrill lifted several quotes from The Maneater, the independent student newspaper at the University of Missouri, Columbia, in his controversial Nov. 4 column without attributing them. Editors reviewing his columns for the past year found five other instances where Merrill had taken quotes without attributing them to the publication where they first appeared.

Stepno offers these distinctions:
  • Reporters go out and interview people, then write stories.
  • Columnists write opinions. Some columnists don't get out much. Some of them make stuff up so much that they add "I'm not making this up" here and there.
  • Plagiarism is taking someone else's writing and presenting it as your own.
  • Poaching is borrowing someone else's reporting and presenting it as -- just possibly -- your own. When reporters do it, they're being dumb, lazy or egotistical. When columnists do it, it's probably just columny.

What do you think? Is it OK for columnists to use quotes from other media outlets without citing the original publication? Post a comment here.

1 comment:

Jonathan Bailey said...

I have to disagree pretty sharply with this for two reasons.

First is that readers have a need, even with a column, to know where the quotes come from. In this case it was minor because the quotes came from a respectable newspaper, but what if they had come from an old Jayson Blair article or the National Enquirer. We never would have known.

Second is that it is a slippery slope. Say it is OK for a columnist to poach quotes, but the line between columnist and report is frequently blurred these days. Also, what about paraphrases? There's a lot of gray area here and it is hard to draw a line in murky water.

A few meager words "As reported in the Missourian" could have put this whole thing to bed before it started. Our trusty professor chose not to do that.

I agree that this has been blown out of proportion, but I'm not going to simply say it was OK and write it off either. Middle ground has to be found here.