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Another accused plagiarist canned

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The Worcester (Ma.) Telegram & Gazette has fired a 20-year veteran sportswriter, claiming he lifted material for his columns verbatim from other sources without attribution.

In Boston Globe and New York Times stories, the T&G’s editor gives examples that make it clear sportswriter Ken Powers used the words and ideas of others without their permission — and that’s the definition of plagiarism.

An unusual wrinkle in this case is that Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, from whom the T&G claims Powers stole material, asked the T&G to be compassionate in its handling of Powers and to keep him on staff, the Globe story said.

I teach media ethics to undergraduates. What should I tell them about this case and why it’s important?

Perhaps I should say that after all, this is “just sports.” Sports writing (and I began my career as a western Massachusetts sportswriter) has the loosest writing and editing standards in journalism, some might say. Game stories, which are supposedly objective accounts of an occurrence, have become larded with the opinion of the sports “reporter.” Sportswriting has become far more an exercise in reportorial ego, some say, rather than a desire to inform the reader — and let readers make up their minds about whether a team stinks.

Perhaps I should point out that much of the professional and undergraduate plagiarism I see is driven by several factors — too much to do in too little time, too little confidence in ones abilities, and so on. Extenuating circumstances often abound in such cases.

So why fire this guy, even in the face of what appears to be compelling evidence provided by his editor that he cheated?

Is it because journalism cannot afford cheaters any more? After all, journalism has taken nasty credibility hits lately, from Jayson Blair to Rathergate.

Who believes journalists anymore — especially “mainstream” journalists in print dailies and weeklies and Big Net broadcasts?

But is that the real lesson here? Not necessarily.

We in the journalism biz (or journalism teaching biz) tut-tut over plagiarism and say, “We can’t have cheaters. It stains all of us.”

But what his editor says Powers did tells me Powers didn’t think much of his readers.

The continuing acts of plagiarism suggest journalists don’t think much of the public. They don’t have confidence in the public. They don’t think their readers are smart enough to catch them, perhaps.

The crisis in confidence cuts both ways. The public doesn’t have faith in journalism, and journalism doesn’t have faith in the public.

Journalists these days seem to spend too little time off the phone and out from behind their desks and getting out among the people. Is it possible they’ve disconnected from their readers and viewers a bit too much?

See this Pew Center report — “Commentary: A Crisis of Confidence” — by Bill Kovach , Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell for a far more elegant take on this line of thinking and other issues affecting the credibility of journalism.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

February 4, 2005 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. plagiarism in journalism
    As a former university writing program director once often saddled with trying to find new and interesting ways to discourage student plagiarism, I found myself serving as part of task forces, etc., whose charge was to a) help students understand why plagiarism is wrong (tough one in our cultural climate) and b) scare the bejesus out of them by showing them the horrible end their academic careers could have if they got caught plagiarizing (even tougher one in a litigating culture).
    You can tell them it might cost them their jobs, even careers, if they’re caught – as well as a lot of humiliation and scorn if publicized. But they can look at Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and see that that can even turn out to be profitable. It’s like hoeing a row of concrete, it seems.
    Beyond that, not much you can do other than be a role model. That still works some.
    The top three reasons students plagiarize? 1) time pressures/constraints; 2) see coursework as irrelevant; 3) competition – either want to do well and fear they can’t or feel others are doing well by plagiarizing, so they rationalize they’re justified doing so, too.
    BTW, I thought Peter King’s request was out of line. In an age of shredded integrity, I think it sends the wrong message.


    February 27, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    • Re: plagiarism in journalism
      Thanks. I appreciate all you said.
      As you might suspect, I’ve had to deal with a variety of plagiarism issues in the classroom.
      But here’s one situation that students just don’t get.
      I teach newswriting by giving press conferences that are intentionally vague. Students need to question me to get the information they need.
      Every now and then, a student who missed class — and the press conference — will get someone’s notes and write the story.
      They end up in the dean’s office facing a plagiarism charge. They just don’t see that using someone’s notes — gathered through the dint of that person’s intelligence, experience and hard work — as plagiarism.
      The mindset is typically “where I got the information from doesn’t matter; all that matters is that I got it.”
      Trying to get journalism students to see that notes are the creation of an individual’s work product, and that secondary use of those notes is taking credit for someone else’s work just doesn’t register on their radar screen.

      Dr. Denny

      February 28, 2005 at 4:01 pm

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