Repeat after me: Zakaria, plagiarism and magnanimity

Some of the latest charges against Fareed Zakaria stretch the meaning of the term 'plagiarism,' one of those charges that can still be a career killer. For bloggers and those who read them: Here are some basics on what constitutes plagiarism in a digital age.

By , Decoder contributor

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    From left, television journalists Bryant Gumbel, Charlie Rose and Fareed Zakaria pose with Richard Plepler (r.), chairman and CEO of Home Box Office, Inc., at the Museum of the Moving Image Annual Honors Benefit on June 11, 2014, in New York.
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Fareed Zakaria, the host of the CNN news show GPS and a Washington Post columnist, is on the hot seat for the second time in two years for allegations that he plagiarized material for use in his written work. Some of you will recall that in August 2010 Mr. Zakaria was briefly suspended for posting a passage in his Time magazine column that bore a close resemblance to a passage written by Jill Lepore in her New Yorker article on the same topic. Zakaria admitted that the event was a “terrible mistake” and was briefly suspended, but was reinstated after his editors deemed it a one-time event. At the time the original accusation occurred, I posted this response that, while not necessarily defending Zakaria, certainly expressed some empathy for how that mistake could occur, since I had nearly made a similar mistake myself.

Now, however, two anonymous bloggers at the Our Bad Media website are claiming that Zakaria “has a history of lifting material in his work across several major publications – despite public assurances from his employers that a previous plagiarism scandal was only an isolated incident.” This is the same duo who accused Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson of multiple instances of copying material verbatim from various online sources. Mr. Johnson was subsequently fired.

It is not clear that Zakaria is even guilty of the charges, never mind that he might suffer Johnson’s fate. In a communication sent to Politico he vigorously denied the accusations, arguing that he did in fact cite sources and otherwise drew on material that was clearly part of the public record. Here is part of his defense:

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“My usual procedure with a piece of data that I encounter is to check it out, going as close to the original source as is possible. If the data is government generated (GDP, spending on pensions, tax rates, defense spending, etc.) then I often don’t cite a source since it is in the public domain. If it is a study or survey produced by a think tank, then I usually cite the institution that conducted the survey. In many of these cases, there was a link in my column to the source. This was not always possible, however, because Time magazine, for example, did not always allow for links. My columns are often data-heavy, so I try to use common sense, putting a source into the text when it was necessary. In many of the columns cited by the bloggers, I found the data they refer to in a primary source not the secondary one that they highlight.”

Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s boss at the Washington Post has already dismissed the one case cited by the bloggers that involved a Zakaria column for that paper. As I noted in my earlier post on this topic, I’m not completely objective here, but I find some of the latest claims against Zakaria to stretch the meaning of the term plagiarism as I understand it. However, I’ll let you be the judge.

So why take up this topic in a blog devoted to analyzing the presidency and American politics, if not to debate Zakaria’s guilt or innocence?  One reason is that this topic is increasingly relevant to those of us who blog – and to those who read our blogs. The charges against Zakaria are likely to resurrect an earlier debate triggered by the Johnson case regarding what constitutes plagiarism in the digital age. While some participants dismissed Johnson’s actions as a trivial copying of fluffy material, the New York Times’' public editor Margaret Sullivan did not: “It’s pretty simple, at BuzzFeed or at The New York Times: Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link. Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.” She went on to point out that with the availability of online search programs, it is becoming increasingly easy to catch cases of plagiarism.

The flip side of that, however, is that in the digital age, the temptation to cut and paste, or more typically to closely paraphrase on-line sources, is all the greater. Anyone who blogs frequently, as I do, is aware of this. As I noted in my earlier post on Zakaria’s initial plagiarism charge, “the proliferation of news aggregators has made it easier to justify using other writers’ material without attribution. I am not immune to this temptation. Almost every day I post an 800-1,500 word comment that more often than not is based in part on someone else’s research and/or insights. I work without an editor, and although I am careful to follow journalistic norms by citing others' work (thanks to my year as a cub reporter for a daily paper, I have some journalistic training), I live in constant fear that I will have forgotten a link or dropped a reference such as “As so-and-so said” in my blog post. And once I hit the send button, it’s very hard to make corrections.”

Those fears have, if anything, become slightly more magnified now that I’m posting almost daily at The Christian Science Monitor and weekly at U.S. News. I appreciate the broader audience, and I would not be able to produce material on an almost daily basis for their consumption were it not for the fact we live in the digital age, where a world of information is available at a keystroke – even here, in God’s Green Hills, where woodchucks outnumber people. But it’s not just bloggers who have to remain vigilant against falling into sloppy attribution practices. My students are returning to campus, and if the past is any guide, more than one of them is going to wrestle this year with the issues that have gotten Zakaria in hot water. So that I might prevent a trip before the judicial board (never mind Our Bad Media!), let me reiterate some simple but important guidelines that students might find helpful as they navigate through the Brave New Digital world.

  • When I directly quote anything, I put it in quotations marks and cite the source. Even if I paraphrase, my general rule is to err on the side of caution and cite the source if this can be even remotely construed as someone else’s material.  You are never going to get in trouble by crediting someone else for inspiring what you wrote, no matter how trivial the material.
  • When I come up with a wonderful idea (say, the special theory of relativity) but am vaguely aware that someone else might have discussed this too (that Al guy?), my default option is to be generous and cite the previous work. I’m cognizant that my “original” idea might in fact owe something to someone else’s research. Moreover, citing related work helps situate my argument in the broader literature, and gives reader a way to assess the intellectual background associated with the particular topic.

I’m acutely aware that the pressure to publish regularly, and to drive audiences to one’s site can tempt one to take shortcuts when it comes to citing sources for ideas and information. “I was first!” is an emotion that dates back to kindergarten, if not earlier. I suspect those pressures are magnified as one moves up the media food chain. However, I know from experience that my students feel similar pressure when they realize that the five-page paper analyzing Obama’s sources of power is due the next morning. My advice under those circumstances is to be magnanimous – cite your sources, no matter how tangential to your argument. You’ll be glad you did. And it just might keep you from becoming the inspiration for the new website Our Bad Student.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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