In the second of three articles looking at the state of journalism and newspapers in the UAE, Bikram Vohra argues that plagiarism is causing untold damage to the industry
“If I was asked to offer odds on how many of our journalists plagiarise copy I’d cheerfully give 10 to one on it being more than 60 per cent of anyone’s editorial staff. The curious part is that most of them
do not think of it as wrong. Whenever I have been confronted with a case there has been this ‘so what’s wrong, everyone does it’ defence, as if it was mere bagatelle and the search engines of the net were some sort of cosmic every man’s land from where you could steal with impunity.
Seeing as how we still work in an environment where press releases are dutifully reproduced in identical format with different bylines in different papers and seen as perfectly legitimate, it is difficult to explain to such a mind how wrong it is. In the case of Fareed Za-karia’s robbery from The New Yorker for his piece on gun control in Time magazine, the chances are when you work in the rare stratosphere of raw fourth estate power you tend to harness interns to do your scut work or, what us old salts call, research. And you do it on trust. If you are the sort who dines with Hilary Clinton and chews the fat with UK prime minister David Cameron you can’t be that stupid as to swipe stuff from a top drawer magazine your readers access. He cannot tell CNN or Time or his vast readership that he cleared a draft, spruced it up and whizzed it forward to meet a deadline. A whole career’s credibility destroyed in a shot. That word again…trust.
Over here, until the law got hard on intellectual property and copyright protection came into being, the creative juices were energised by the Black Book, Google, Clipart, whatever you could grab and rework from this wonderful machine called the computer without any concern for what the consequences might be. There weren’t any. That attitude has not gone away.
In one local paper not so long ago two people were found out and confronted by the original writers. Since there was the threat of legal action the chief executive who, regrettably had a limited command of English and never read his own paper, became suitably enraged and demanded the placing of a safety net (sort of a pun there), while assuring all and sundry that if it happened again fire and brimstone would be just for starters. He was big on safety nets.
Since there is no such thing as a failsafe net, a few days later a third journalist was accused by a writer from a competitor that her report had been reproduced sans credit and under this person’s byline. Tracing the culprit’s history it was discovered that the previous 17 articles so written had been stolen. Now, this writer had resigned and, as luck would have it, the discovery occurred a day after the resignation was accepted. Unfortunately, action against this transgression was trumped by the need to keep it a secret from the chief executive. The only way that could be done was to pretend it hadn’t happened at all. So everyone got into an ugly conspiracy headed by the accountant general, who was also a sort of super editor, and the cheat was given full pay, gratuity and shunted off swiftly. Ironically, a fourth writer was caught the following month. The saga has no end.
On a larger canvas, the bloggers of the world are the keepers at the gate. Their ability to suss out a suspect story that resonates and leak it into the ether, and the extent of their bonding, is the only real deterrent to keeping media honest. They are our best bet. But even they pay the price since there is this general belief that bloggers have no rights, are not real people and cannot take action. Since some of them are brilliant writers, swiping their material is often irresistible and many of them do not have the wherewithal to fight legal wars.
Assuming that dozens of writers hack away at the search engine and cut and paste lines and paras with connecting words, how do so many get away with it? Largely because they are so isolated in our part of the world the connect from the original to them is just too remote and then they learn to camouflage.
Here is a three-point game plan that most of them use. They steal from the 20th page onwards of the site. Like they won’t pick up the first 10 top pages but burrow deep into the background. Go for the 400th article on gun control and Fareed would still be dining at the White House. They steal from unknowns or, as I said, bloggers who really could not be bothered to pursue legal action. They change key words through online synonyms. This is known as reworking the copy. One paper okayed a four-page layout of a fashion exhibition with a Danny Boyle version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On impulse the editor just sieved it on the net and discovered the photographer lived in the Far East and this spread that was going to print was his website portfolio.
Like with all crimes, the criminals leave enough evidence on the scene, such as replicating the thought process or underscoring their assault on originality by leaving the sequence dramatically the same. Then some phrases are missed out as they sanitise, and even these can be traced by loading them into a search mode. The cleverer ones just put it in quotes and hope to cover their required length that much sooner. “Ctrl C and Ctrl V. Done.”
Is there a way to combat this? Yes, to an extent, the matter can be checked out by putting part of it through a search. I once plagiarised myself from the net and was updating a piece… when I put two paras into Google the original came up. A good section head needs to do that even though no one appreciates how time consuming it is and how it bruises morale, especially for the ones who are honest. You point a flinty finger every day, who wants to work for you. Catch-22 time.
It has to be said when you have been in this business long enough that you can sense something is out of kilter. That staffer could not possibly have written this stuff, whirr whirr, there goes the warning antenna. Just don’t overlook it. Either that or you don’t worry about your chief executive’s wrath and you drum the cheats out rather than let them get away with it and ruin the profession… or what is left of it.”
Bikram Vohra has been editor of Gulf News, Khaleej Times and the Bahrain Tribune. He is currently collecting investors to launch an epaper called The Why
Filed Under: 3.Blogs & Comment