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.