Plagiarism is a big word. So big that it can ruin a career. And yet it is slippery to define.
When NPR.org recently ran an article in its Parallels blog from GlobalPost, a foreign news partner site, a reader named Mark Ross commented at the bottom, "What's really weird, is the parallels I am drawing between this article and one from last September." The NPR partner content article was on child rearing practices in other countries, and Ross linked to a similar one in Cracked, a humor site about contemporary culture. A reader called "Tom Hanks" copied the comment in an ombudsman forum and sent tremors when he added, "Plagiarism has arrived at NPR."
But what constitutes plagiarism? In academia, the definition is so strict that it extends even to using someone else's idea without credit. In the legal profession, on the other hand, lawyers can and do use identical whole chunks of each other's briefs with nary a nod to the creator. Journalism falls somewhere in between, with as many definitions, it seems, as there are journalism groups and news outlets.
What is clear is that in looking at the two stories as first posted is that there was considerable overlap in the GlobalPost piece without giving credit to Cracked. One section headline was identical, three others were close, the writing shared similarities, and a key illustration was the same. NPR had nothing to do with the production of the article, but has responsibility for everything in its website. Since I raised questions with editors at NPR and GlobalPost, some small text changes have been made and an editor's note giving credit to Cracked has been added, though most of the similarities remain the same.
Perhaps most critical is that the concept and structure of the two articles are alike. Both are lighthearted lists of seemingly successful parenting practices in other countries that many Americans probably would consider objectionable. The GlobalPost story was more of a sweet soft shoe captured by the understatement of its headline: "Global Parenting Habits That Haven't Caught On In The U.S." Cracked pushed the laugh button more directly, as reflected in its headline: "6 Foreign Parenting Practices Americans Would Call Neglect."
Still, I don't think that there was journalistic plagiarism.
One reason has to do with definition. Except for the minor subhead, there was no lifting of exact language or quotes, the one thing all the journalistic definitions agree on as crossing the line.
Secondly, the GlobalPost writer, Emily Lodish, cited books and other sources in her article that Cracked did not. This supports what her managing editor, Lizzy Tomei, told me, which is that Lodish did her own research into the parenting practices. Those practices also are widely known among experts; there was no exclusive information in the Cracked article. Lodish also cited more foreign examples—nine versus the six in Cracked—of which four were in both articles.
Thirdly, Tomei told me that she was satisfied after talking with Lodish that little of her article originated with the one in Cracked. Rather, Tomei said, Lodish got her idea from a TED Talk, which she linked to in her piece. She found the Cracked article while doing her own research, Tomei said.
I have no reason to doubt Tomei. She was open in a spirit to do the right thing. She even volunteered that Lodish did first learn of one parenting practice cited by Cracked, that about Kenyan mothers who don't look their babies in the eye. Lodish then confirmed the practice with more authoritative sources, Tomei said. The new version on GlobalPost's own site now says in the Kenyan section, "Hat tipped to Cracked" and includes a link. NPR did not insert the "hat tip" in its new version, but rather let the editor's note at the bottom suffice in acknowledging Cracked.
As for the essentially identical concepts, lifting story ideas is standard practice in journalism. Every radio, television, newspaper and web news outlet, mainstream or alternative, is following what others do and seeks to match what someone else has and it doesn't but wants. If another outlet has exclusive information that you can't get yourself, then clearly you have to credit the original source to avoid plagiarism under all its definitions. What's murkier is what to do when you are able to confirm the same facts, and whether the original story was an everyday one or a distinctive feature or investigation.
As I write, for example, the education team at NPR itself has been tweeting indignantly that it has been copied by the news and lifestyle site Inquisitr. And the affected story was about—I am not making this up—plagiarism. Of the academic kind.
"Hey @theinquisitr," tweeted NPR reporter Cory Turner, "You took my @npr_ed story on plagiarism, badly paraphrased it, then dropped my name. Being ironic?" His colleague Anya Kamenetz took off the gloves and used the dreaded p-word: "Hey look! @NPRCoryTurner's @npr_ed piece on plagiarism was totally plagiarized! (sic)"
It's not my place to investigate Inquisitr, which linked a quote to the NPR story as if that were enough. Interested readers might enjoy this subsequent exchange between Turner and a journalism class at Syracuse University. But on the matter of the parenting feature in NPR's site, rather than plagiarism, what I find is that it violated standards for professional courtesy and fairness, a lesser crime. As NPR's own Code of Ethics states:
Always be fair to your colleagues in the news media when drawing from their reports. Just as we insist that NPR be given credit for its work, we are generous in giving credit to others for their scoops and enterprise work.
When excerpting or quoting from other organizations' work, we strive to call attention to it, not draw attention from it. Do not quote or paraphrase another organization's material so much that you effectively make reading, watching or listening to their reports unnecessary. In its most egregious incarnations, excessive quotation is effectively plagiarism, which we take no part in.
To me, the editor's notes and minor changes that have since been added by NPR and GlobalPost are sufficient correctives. But you may conclude differently. If so, you might find yourself supported by other codes of ethics and a trend of broadening the definition of journalistic plagiarism, as I show below. But first, to help you decide, here are key excerpts from the two articles and the explanations from Tomei:
The Section Titles
The four questionable section titles, including the identical one, were:
Cracked: Nordic Kids Nap in Subzero Weather ... Outside
GlobalPost: In Norway, kids nap outside even in subzero temperatures
Cracked: Vietnamese Moms Train Their Babies to Pee on Command
GlobalPost: Vietnamese moms train their babies to pee on command
Cracked: Kenyan Mothers Refuse Eye Contact With Their Babies
GlobalPost: Traditionally, Kisii people in Kenya avoid looking their babies in the eye
Cracked: Europeans Park Their Kids on the Sidewalk
GlobalPost: Danish parents leave their kids on the curb while they go shopping
Response from GlobalPost managing editor Lizzy Tomei:
From what I can see there are two main issues of concern in Emily's piece: one, some writing similarity, and specifically the section heading about Vietnamese parents, which was exactly the same as in the Cracked piece. This was the result of an accident — not due to copy-pasting, but to Emily failing to realize she was writing a subhead she'd already come across in her research. We have amended this section as follows: "Vietnamese parents potty-train their babies by 9 months."
The Language In The Four Shared Sections
On Scandinavian children sleeping outside in the cold:
Cracked: Imagine standing outside a Swedish day care in January and seeing a whole row of baby strollers full of napping kids.
GlobalPost: It's not uncommon to see kids bundled up outside during a Scandinavian winter, taking a nap in their strollers.
In the first example you noted regarding Scandinavian kids in winter, Emily is describing the most unique aspects of Barnehage, a daycare institution Cracked doesn't discuss. While of course the subject of "kids napping outside in subzero temperatures" is the same, I find her approach and writing to be distinct enough from the Cracked version.
On the Kenyan mothers:
Cracked: Their reasoning kind of makes sense when you look at their culture. In the Western world, avoiding eye contact looks like guilt or shyness. In the Gusii world, eye contact has power, and there are very strict rules about who you look at. And when it comes to kids, you don't want to give more power to them than they already have. For Gusii moms, their babies are already demanding their time, their attention, and their boobs, which is a lot of energy in a culture that needs the mom's labor. Giving babies the ultimate sign of respect — eye contact — is like saying "You're in charge." And babies clearly aren't in charge. They're babies. No one who poops on himself should be in charge.
Here's where the Gusii eye contact thing almost makes sense: Researchers have discovered that Gusii kids are conditioned to not seek attention from others when compared to kids from other cultures.
GlobalPost: It's likely to sound harsh to a Western sensibility, but within the context of Kisii culture, it makes more sense. Eye contact is an act bestowed with a lot of power. It's like saying, "You're in charge," which isn't the message parents want to send their kids. Researchers say Kisii kids are less attention-seeking as a result.
I agree that there is similarity in the framing and language on the Kenyan mothers item, which is more problematic. This section rides a line in my opinion, albeit leaning in the wrong direction. While aggregation standards vary by outlet, we believe an aggregated story should be original in at least how it frames credited information or by adding value through the use of multiple sources, and this section was not totally successful in that regard. However, none of Emily's prose is lifted, and the Cracked credit is now prominent, which I feel makes it acceptable.
On Vietnamese practices:
Cracked: Unless you've tried to figure out what to do with a pair of poop-filled Underoos in an Olive Garden bathroom, don't assume you know the first thing about potty-training toddlers. It's hard and messy and you will touch another human's fecal matter at some point. Which is why we're both fascinated and horrified by the Vietnamese method of getting kids to pee on the toilet — by treating their kids like one of Pavlov's dogs, only with whistles instead of bells.
Here's how: As soon as Vietnamese babies are born, their moms give a special whistle every time they notice their newborns urinate, which can be up to 12 times a day if they're paying attention. So walking in a Vietnamese newborn nursery must be like walking through an aviary at sunrise.
Here's where things get a little weird. In the same way that the famous doctor Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, Vietnamese moms train their babies to piss at the sound of their whistle — and it works.
By the age of 3 months, the moms hold their kids over toilets, give a little whistle, and their kids urinate on command, like magic. By 9 months, they're done with diapers altogether, like some kind of goddamn pee prodigies. By contrast, it takes American kids two and a half years or longer to shake the diaper habit. So if you ever want to have some fun in Vietnam, whistle at kids on the street and find out what happens.
GlobalPost: In Vietnam, parents train their babies to pee on command. Kind of like Pavlov with his salivating dogs. Except this is moms with peeing babies. The Chinese do it too, apparently. Parents start by noticing when their baby starts peeing and making a little whistle sound. Soon enough, the baby starts to associate the whistle with peeing and voila!
Think this sounds a little odd? Or a little like someone is conflating a kid with a pet schnauzer? Well, researchers say Vietnamese babies are usually out of diapers by 9 months. What do you think now?
On the Pavlov comparison, this is the most common knowledge parallel that I know of to what Vietnamese parents are doing with their kids. "Pavlovian" is the most apt description of the physiological response, so in spite of the similarity it creates, I see reason to use the word and concept here as those of best use to the reader. Emily could have used "conditioned" and left out the Pavlov reference, say, but then the physiological association for readers wouldn't have come across as strongly. I consider this to be a widely used concept that's employed appropriately here.
On leaving children outside a restaurant in New York, with the same link to The New York Times:
Cracked: Americans — even ones from New York — tend to freak out at the sight of unattended children, as a Danish tourist found out in 1997. While visiting the city, Annette Sorensen and her husband decided to eat at an East Village restaurant, but instead of hiring a babysitter or ordering takeout or, we don't know, maybe taking their child into the restaurant with them, they left their daughter parked in her stroller on the sidewalk.
Not one, but two different worried New Yorkers took the time to walk into the restaurant in hopes of finding the abandoned toddler's parents, begging whoever owned this child to just get her off the street. "The stroller alone is worth at least $30 in Times Square," they probably argued, New Yorkerly. The couple refused, leaving their baby outside for a whole hour while they enjoyed dinner. The locals called the cops, which was why the couple was arrested for child endangerment and lost custody of their kid for a day.
GlobalPost: In New York, a couple (one of whom was Danish) was arrested for leaving their child outside a BBQ restaurant while they went inside to eat.
"I was just in Denmark and that's exactly what they do," Mariom Adler, a New Yorker out walking with her 2-year-old son, told the New York Times. "We would see babies all over unattended. We were stunned, frankly. But Denmark also struck us as exceptionally civilized."
The New York Times piece was discussed in great length in one of the books ("How Eskimos Keep their Babies Warm") that Emily cited and quoted in her piece. She had a hard copy of that book she used in her research. Cracked also used the Times article as a source, yes.
More generally, Tomei said:
Aside from the Kenya story, however, any other item in GlobalPost's list that Cracked also features is documented in multiple sources, online and in hard-copy books (both of which Emily used). Quite a few are relatively common knowledge in many parts of the world. Emily was simply collating them in a piece that fits our brand and interests our readers, and she consulted many sources in her research.
"In our opinion," Tomei concluded, "the writing — save for the one subhead — is not similar enough to be considered plagiarized."
And so GlobalPost inserted the "hat tip" into the Kenya section and added this note at the bottom of the story:
Editor's note: The heading "Vietnamese parents potty-train their babies by 9 months" and some language in this article has been edited from a previous version that was overly similar to language used in a story by Cracked.com on the same topic. GlobalPost regrets the oversight.
NPR's standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, added this slightly different note to NPR's version, but he, too, did not use the plagiarism word:
Editor's note on Aug. 26:GlobalPost is one of several news outlets that provides content to NPR.org. While producing this story, GlobalPost neglected to give credit to Cracked.com for its earlier reporting and included a subheading — "Vietnamese moms train their babies to pee on command" — that was identical to a line written by Cracked.com. That subheading has been rewritten.
Is that enough? Several colleagues I consulted at other mainstream news organizations think so, and I agree. But I am not sure that everyone in journalism would.
Defining The Crime
I was invited last year to participate on a panel from across the industry put together by the American Copy Editors Society to write a new, consensus definition on plagiarism for a National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication. Partly driving the effort was concern about widespread copying within the internet's freewheeling culture. For lack of time, I quit the panel after a few conference calls, but the final document, published as an ebook, might justify a different conclusion on the parenting story:
"Plagiarism is presenting someone else's language or work as your own. Whether it is deliberate or the result of carelessness, such appropriation should be considered unacceptable because it hides the sources of information from the audience. Every act of plagiarism betrays the public's trust, violates the creator of the original material and diminishes the offender, our craft and our industry."
"We broadened our definition of plagiarism to cover the realm of ideas, encouraging practitioners throughout the industry to more generously and forthrightly cite the seminal, distinctive work of others from whom they draw inspiration in creating their own original works."
"Journalists might understandably start the conversation with a question: How much information – a word, a phrase, a sentence – can be copied without committing plagiarism? That's the wrong approach. It is more productive to look for reasons to attribute information more often, more clearly, more generously."
This "broadened" definition "to cover the realm of ideas" approximates an academic definition and reflects what seems to be a general trend among journalism groups and schools. In the GlobalPost piece, the "idea" of comparing global parenting practices to American ones was not a new one even when Cracked published it. But the framing, structure and paraphrasing—"whether it is deliberate or the result of carelessness"—would seem at the very least to walk up to the line, if not cross it, under this definition, and others that use similar language. The identical subhead clearly is plagiarism if intent does not matter.
I totally agree with the admirable spirit behind this "broadened" definition, but I worry that it condemns plagiarism to a semantic debate. To me, plagiarism is stealing and is almost always a firing offense. A definition that is too broad undercuts the stigma of the crime and calls more often for hand slaps.
Journalism cannot have the same definition as in academia, where scholars work for months or years on an incremental, often miniscule original contribution to the recorded body of knowledge, for which they cite scores of sources. Journalism operates in the world of here and now, in which ideas and information pass quickly into the public domain. They become common knowledge as more news outlets confirm and repeat the ideas and information, sometimes regardless of the truth. Where do you draw the line for when ideas and information become common knowledge —as opposed to an "exclusive" report — especially when you confirm the information yourself?
Making the drawing of the line a matter more of professional courtesy and fairness seems more appropriate to me for journalism, except in narrowly defined cases. The latter include exclusive information or quotes you can't get yourself, actual copying of language, and what the NPR code calls "egregious" paraphrasing. This reduces the room for semantics on a word that can ruin someone's career just by raising.
To say, additionally, that there is in effect such a thing as "unintended plagiarism," as many of the codes do, is similarly problematic. I understand the point. The common defense for plagiarism is that it happened by accident, or "carelessness," as the consensus code states. The victim of being copied, moreover, understandably feels plagiarized no matter how it happened. Nonetheless, if plagiarism is indeed stealing, then intent makes all the difference in the world, it seems to me. Also, there are only so many ways to say some things. Many ideas and phrasings in "journalese" are repeated so much that while they may not constitute the most inspired writing, they hardly amount to stealing.
Plagiarism is clearly an issue, especially as over-worked reporters, columnists and bloggers get caught up in the hamster wheel of producing for a 24-hour news cycle online and in cable television. A related web issue today is whether actual verbal credit must be given when using someone else's work, or just adding links is sufficient. The answer will lie in how we as a society define a link; I suspect that we are coming to define it as credit enough, but each of us will decide for ourselves whether we are there yet.
In the meantime, I hope that Emily Lodish, a rising editor at GlobalPost , will not be censored any more than she already has been. She is, by all the accounts I could gather, a conscientious journalist. "I have warned Emily against letting this happen again," Tomei told me. "I can assure you she takes this with the utmost seriousness, as do we. "
"She is very upset with herself," Tomei said. I am sure that this is true.
Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this article.