Plagiarism

Students sometimes get mixed up about what constitutes plagiarism, but journalists should never let that happen. They should understand that plagiarism is one of the worst things they can do, and they should know how to avoid it. Here is what the Detroit Free Press has to say about plagiarism:

When material is used in a story from sources other than the writer’s own reporting, those sources–other publications, previous Free Press stories, radio or TV newscasts, etc.–should be indicated in the story. That attribution need not be made for simple, verifiable facts like dates, but is essential for information that goes beyond simple fact-quotations or descriptions not heard or seen by the current reporter, characterizations or other generalizations not based on the writer’s own reporting, etc…

Using someone else’s work without attribution -whether deliberately or thoughtlessly–is a serious ethical breach. Staff members should be alert to the potential for even small, unintentional acts of plagiarism, especially in the reporting of complicated stories involving many sources.

Borrowing ideas from elsewhere, however, is considered fair journalistic practice. Problems arise in the gray areas between the acceptable borrowing of inspiration and the unacceptable stealing of another’s work. Our standards:

Words directly quoted from sources other than the writer’s own reporting should be attributed. That may mean saying the material came from a previous Free Press story, from a television interview, from a magazine or book or wire service report.

When other work is used as the source of ideas or stylistic inspiration, the result must be clearly your own work. That is, what is acceptable to learn from another are the elements of style and approach-tone, rhythm, vocabulary, topic ideas-and not specific words, phrases, images.

You can find what other codes of ethics have to say about plagiarism at Journalism.org.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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