By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Recycling quotes isn’t plagiarism

Today’s Worcester Telegram & Gazette runs an “amplification” that reads:

Remarks by Darrel Slater in a Nov. 23 editorial on the release of accused killer Daniel Thomas Tavares Jr. from custody in Massachusetts were reported in the Boston Herald Nov. 21. The editorial neglected to credit the Herald as the source of the quotation.

Fair enough. The Herald deserved credit. But I’m beginning to think we’re all getting carried away when it comes to the use and misuse of background material.

This latest incident began to unfold yesterday, when Boston magazine’s John Gonzalez reported on the matter. The T&G had begun an editorial by quoting Slater, the father of a young woman allegedly murdered by Tavares in Washington state. “It’s because of stupidity in Massachusetts that my daughter is dead…,” Slater reportedly said. “How does a guy who killed his mother, gets charged with more crimes, get out of jail? How can he leave the state?”

As it turns out, the T&G had taken that quote from a Herald story written by Michele McPhee and Jessica Van Sack.

To be sure, the T&G should have credited the Herald. But the headline on Gonzalez’s item — “Worcester Telegram Plagiarized Herald” — vastly overstates what happened. This was not plagiarism. Opinion pieces regularly recycle quotes from other news sources without credit.

No one could reasonably have believed that the T&G editorialist had interviewed Slater. The problem here was simply that the Slater quote was a pretty significant exclusive for the Herald, and it was cheap of the T&G not to acknowledge it. The paper’s editors realized that and have made amends.

But do quotes always need to be credited? Of course not. Let me offer an absolutely typical example from yesterday’s James Carroll column on Middle East peace prospects, which appeared in the Boston Globe. Toward the end, Carroll writes:

Which brings us to the final reason for hope. The status quo is now universally recognized as catastrophic for everybody. “Unless a political horizon can be found,” Olmert said last week, “the results will be deadly.” Deadly to a two-state solution, Palestinian hope, and Israeli democracy. Deadly to the world. By comparison, all obstacles to peace are minor.

No one would think Carroll had interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert said it, it got reported around the world and Carroll used it as background material in expressing his opinion. It was an entirely unremarkable bit of journalistic craft.

Recently, you may recall, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst Jon Keller was called out by the Herald’s Jessica Heslam because he recycled some quotes without credit in his fine new book on Massachusetts politics, “The Bluest State.” What Keller did was standard practice for an opinion journalist, especially in a non-academic book aimed at a mass audience. Nonetheless, he was put through the wringer for a few days.

There is a huge difference between plagiarism (“It involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterward”) and being slipshod with background material. I’m afraid we’re beginning to lose sight of that.

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  1. mike_b1

    File under, Fighting Last Month’s War?

  2. Gonz

    Dan,You know I’m a big fan of yours. But you write “No one could reasonably have believed that the T&G editorialist had interviewed Slater.” Um, why not? The average reader would have no reason to believe otherwise. Perhaps those of us in the business understand that quotes are sometimes recycled (though I strongly disagree with your assertion that it happens “regularly…without credit”). But readers who aren’t in the media might rightly believe that quotes without credit were obtained by the paper that prints them. And, because of that, the T&G made an error that was, in fact, plagiarism. After all, the very definition of plagiarism, according to Merriam-Webster’s is “to steal or pass off as one’s own; use without crediting the source.”It may have been, as George French told me, “an oversight,” but that doesn’t alter the definition.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Gonz: It would be fair for a reader to think the quote had been reported by the T&G, which is why I think you wrote a righteous item.

  4. Aaron Read

    At the same time, though…part of the reason for that valid difference was that it used to be a lot harder to attribute an everyday quote. It could mean extensive research (i.e. time) poring over print copy, verifying something that doesn’t really need verifying.With the web, it’s become MUCH easier to research a quote. The problem is, it still doesn’t really NEED to be researched any more than it was, but the barrier to doing so has dropped so low that people have started expecting it.This problem is not going to go away on its own…not without chewing up several good journalists’ careers first, anyways. Managing expectations is never easy but it really should be done here before this gets ugly; and since journalism is inextricably linked to the web…it will eventually get “Godwin’s Law ugly“.You say that “no one could reasonably believe”…except what the web has definitively proven is that most people are quite UNreasonable and more than willing to prove it in a public forum. If journalisms keep relying on public norms to protect them in this issue, they will keep getting burned.

  5. Anonymous

    Two comments:1) w/r/t “Gonz”, quoting the m-w definition of plagiarism: how is a quote an “original product”? The original product is the utterance of the one quoted, not of the reporter who copied it down. Stealing the work of the reporter, probably, since someone had to go to the effort of interviewing the person, but to claim it as something original, it is not.In the same way, quoting passages in a book or movie for purposes of review does not mean the original material is the product of the reviewer.2) That said, quote sources should always be credited. Countless times have quotes been mangled (“Al Gore said ‘I invented the internet'”, for example) and it’s become widespread practice for reporters and pundits to manufacture quotes as a means to ridicule the one being quoted. That, put words in their mouths, regardless of whether they were ever spoken in the first place. I mean, how hard is it to say “so-and-so told the Herald, ‘whatever'”? or “so-and-so is quoted in the Herald as saying…”?

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: One of the smartest comments I’ve seen on this in a long while. I think the ease of blogging and linking is causing a lot of people to look at traditional practices like no-credit backgrounding in a new, less favorable light.

  7. Peter Porcupine

    It’s not only the ease of linking (which creates an automatic attribution) that cause bloggers to misunderstand. It’s that for conventional writing, the word count and column inch are king. The difference between ‘reportedly said’ and ‘as reported by Fred on Page B-1 of the Herald’ is 8 words – a mere bagatelle in the limitless land of cyber-ink, but a half a sentance or thought that would need to be pruned elsewhere from a conventional editorial. Contrary to popular belief, editorialists aren’t usually desperate to fill up space – they are rather trying to carve away words trying to fit the thoughts in the space alloted.

  8. Anonymous

    Dan, I’m the Anon. who really got into it with you over the Keller thing before. I still think you’re dead wrong about his book.But I’ve said it all before, and anyone who cares can go back and read those threads.What I want to address here is this source you keep citing for a definition of “plagiarism.” The site is run by a commercial venture interested in marketing plagiarism detecting software. The guy who runs the company – I’ve talked to him – think “used car salesman” – sets himself up as an expert, which he is not. He describes plagiarism in dramatic terms to persuade businesses they really need his software to protect themselves from all kinds of theft and liability.The simple fact is, he’s wrong. Plagiarism (and I’m repeating myself here) does NOT require intent. If you lift something without appropriate attribution, it is plagiarism, period. I am stunned that you don’t seem to understand this.Maybe in any other context you would, but since this involves your friend Jon Keller, you just can’t be objective. So I’ll repeat myself again: Never review a friend’s book.

  9. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    C’mon, Dan. You don’t advocate “slipsho”, do you? Whoops, I inadvertantly left out a “d.” How slipshod of me.

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Fluffy: I will simply point out that I wrote that the Telegram did the right thing by running that “amplification.” Just because I don’t think what they did was plagiarism doesn’t mean I’m advocating it. Give me a break.

  11. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    Wow. Such hand-wringing.First, I refuse to take anyone seriously who starts an item about the publication of a quote in two newspapers by saying “Boston Daily has learned…” Learned indeed. READ maybe. But “learned?” That’s like saying you “learned” something at a press conference; in the reporting context, “learned” has historically meant more than repeating information already in the public domain — such as printed words in two newspapers. Second, does this “plagiarism” accusation mean that every time reference is made to a quotation from a public figure in any subsequent reporting, the original source of the quote must be identified? If so I’m calling out my American History professor from 30 years ago for failing to identify, in every reference, the newspaper that originally reported that Calvin Coolidge said “I do not choose to run.”Third, while original research is part of editorial writing, it is generally accepted that editorials are commentary on news, trends and god-knows-what, and that an editorial is not intended to be presented as a news story. Nobody picked up the Telegram and Gazette and said “Gee, I’ll think I shall turn to the editorials to see if they have any more news on that judge…” Nowhere does the T&G represent the quote as its own work; at some point does not a public statement by one involved in a public controversy become part of public discourse? Meanwhile, I have learned that President Reagan plagiarized Peggy Noonan when he said the shuttle Challenger astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”But let us not allow common sense to interfere with a good game of Gotcha!

  12. Anonymous

    A slightly different take on the issue.But do quotes always need to be credited? Of course not.Of course they do. But the question is, who should be creditied? The person being quoted, of course, otherwise the reader might not know who made the quotation.It might be courteous to identify who first reported the quotation, but the important issue is the identity of the person who made the quotation.–raj

  13. Anonymous

    Yes raj,and that person is not Peggy Noonan but John Gillespie Magee, Jr.. Back in the day, TV stations signed off with this (and USAFA cadets learned it before plebe year, still do).

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