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JOURNALISTIC PLAGIARISM

Slowing down, catching up




Three cases of journalistic plagiarism, including that of Fareed Zakaria, have much to say about the pitfalls of our need for speed in this instant age, says Gitanjali Dang

In a precarious economy of information, journalism is not above the business of the Spectacle. As such, in an age that clearly suffers from attention deficit disorder, journalism has found itself necessarily forced to submit to increasing demands for instant gratification too. But such 'speed journalism' has it pitfalls, as three instances from these past few months show us, where three distinct cases of journalistic 'plagiarism' attracted much opprobrium across the world. While each of these instances does admittedly present different scenarios, it does help us get a general sense of where things are at.

In July, Ahmad Shafi, an Afghan intern at NPR, formerly National Public Radio, a well-known nonprofit media organisation in the US, got tangled up in some plagiarism drama. In a piece titled 'A Taliban Execution Brings Back Painful Memories', Shafi, who started off as an NPR 'fixer' in Kabul, plagiarised, or copy-pasted as it were, sixty-eight words from a story written by Jason Burke in 2001.

Close on the heels of the NPR episode came the more famous Fareed Zakaria plagiarism scandal. The Indian-American journalist got into trouble when it was found that he had lifted parts of a New Yorker article in a recent column for Time. Sections of the 48-year-old's article titled 'The Case for Gun Control' were strikingly similar to Jill Lapore's 'Battleground America' for The New Yorker. Zakaria even employed a paragraph from Adam Winkler's Gunfight : The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, which Lapore had quoted in her piece.

And then there is the ongoing saga of Jonah Lehrer. Earlier this year the American writer was also accused of unethical writing practices when it was reported that he had self-plagiarised in at least five of his blog posts for The New Yorker. In that, certain sentences that appeared on The New Yorker site had already appeared in pieces written for publications such as The Guardian and Wired magazine.

While each of these 'situations' has been chased by media watchdogs, of the three cases before us, the first undoubtedly has a quieter, and consequently more nuanced profile of the lot, with NPR showing far greater insight in handling the matter than other publications faced with similarly fraught circumstances. Shafi was made to lie low for as long as the internal investigation was on. NPR allowed him to resume his regular duties once the questionable story was taken offline. NPR acted swiftly but it continues to be debated if the story should've been taken off and whether in the absence of the story, the matter at least merited an editor's note. No great noise was made about Shafi because by his admission the ethics of journalism are as yet underdeveloped in Afghanistan. The cultural differences were not blown out of proportion and Shafi is back in the swing of things.

Although Shafi's admission regarding Afghanistan journalism is accurate, one must also bear in mind that Afghanistan has for sometime now been the cradle for a kind of high octane journalism of speed as perpetuated by visiting journalists from the 'overworld'. These highflying dignitaries are often times known to mine the war-ravaged country for breaking news and propaganda. In the absence of home-grown rules of engagement, it's hardly surprising that Shafi would adhere to the misbegotten tenets of speed journalism.

Yet everyone wanted to have an opinion on the Zakaria fiasco. Some Indian media heavyweights even went on air to claim that Zakaria's career was over. But do consider that all this hullaballoo came to pass because the man didn't mention his secondary source. In that, although Zakaria took note of the primary source material in Winkler, he failed to mention his secondary source in Lapore's New Yorker piece, which is where he picked up the Winkler quotes from. This might be an important oversight but is hardly 'plagiarism'.

Both CNN and Time, who had earlier suspended the author, have reviewed the case and reinstated Zakaria. Nonetheless, from the sheer number of institutions, which were/ are 'reviewing' Zakaria's position it becomes quite apparent, excuse the pun, that many guns have been jumped needlessly.

With Jonah Lehrer, what started off with selfplagiarism has since turned murkier with evidence indicating that Lehrer had also fabricated quotes from people - a far more serious offence. As such, self-plagiarism has a rather illustrious history. In 1886, Oscar Wilde took on the editorship of the fashion magazine Woman's World. In 1890, in his only published novel, the classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, the enfant terrible of the Victorian literary world made liberal use of his writings from that magazine.

Indeed, the idea of 'self-plagiarism' can be found across disciplines, albeit under more accommodating rubrics. In visual art for instance, repeated sighting of particular figures, for one, are identified as leitmotifs, and are often credited with making the work richer. But of course, there's little doubt that journalism, despite its many innovations and perceived ethical erosions, is not entirely comparable to either poetry or fiction.

Clearly, today it's not enough that information be 'moving' at all times. The speed at which this information moves has become vital to journalism. So much so that Arianna Huffington, editor of the US-based Huffington Post Media Group, made a case for a 'Slow News Movement' recently. In doing so, Huffington appeared to be urging for a journalism that is less predatory and more alert to the complexities of our current world order.

By slowing down the pace of journalism, as it were, one could make a case for a more contemplative journalism. In the absence of a set code for a more contemplative journalism, Zakaria, and even Lehrer, appear to have gotten pulled up because they were playing by the rules of a ruthless game, which demands regular sacrifices at the altars of speed and spectacle.

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