Friday, August 08, 2008

Why plagiarism weakens the reason why we still need the press

Whew. I'm back blogging. I just hope I would be able to blog on a more frequent basis this time.

Anyway, ANC's Media in Focus tackled last night the rampant practice of plagiarism in journalism, basing on the story I did for the the May-June 2008 issue of the PJR Reports. I was invited to be a guest for the episode, but because I had a class on visual literacy under Prof. Isabel Kenny that time (more on my MA Journalism classes at the Ateneo de Manila University in future posts), I declined and referred other people as guests instead.

In case you have not read this, here's my story on plagiarism.

The Vampire Chroniclers
by Hector Bryant L. Macale
May-June 2008
PJR Reports

In the age of Web 2.0, when computers and the Internet have become necessary research and writing tools for reporters, any one can plagiarize by using online search and copy-and-paste technology. But this convenience is a double edged sword: the same tools can also be used to detect plagiarism.

Investigative journalist Alecks Pabico found that out one Sunday. Since he had been writing about the generics drug law for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Pabico kept himself updated on the issue through Google Alerts. A useful tool that journalists can use to monitor issues, Google Alerts can send anyone information on whatever topic s/he wants through e-mail.

Click here for more. Or better yet, read the same article posted on the Eye on Ethics blog. The blog carries the two sidebars of the article, unlike the PJR Reports site which only carried the sidebar on tips regarding plagiarism.

Not only does the Eye on Ethics blog carry the two sidebars (one on the tips and the other views by journalists and media educators on the articles in question). More importantly, it carries the links of the articles so you can compare the articles for yourself and decide whether they were actually plagiarized.

Here's how Eye on Ethics continued my two paragraphs above:

"One item from Google Alerts caught Pabico’s attention: a special report on the issue from The Manila Times posted online that same day, Feb. 3. He was surprised that the Times report contained sentences and quotes that were eerily familiar. Pabico found that the Times report as well as an accompanying story had lifted several portions of a story he did on the generics law almost two years ago. The stories contained several paragraphs nearly identical with portions of Pabico’s September 2006 report. Even several of the quotes in his story two years ago were in the Times stories."

One colleague told me that the article has provoked some discussions in the press community regarding plagiarism. Some mass communication students were also asking my views regarding the subject. I think the article just shows that, despite the existence of rules against plagiarism in the Journalist's Code of Ethics and newsroom ethics manuals, there is not enough discussion within the press on what constitutes plagiarism and how news organizations sanction journalists guilty of plagiarizing.

In this age of Web 2.0, when tons of information are available online and copy-and-paste technology is a common practice not just by journalists but other people as well, the issue of plagiarism in journalism needs to be revisited, Philippine Daily Inquirer lifestyle sub-editor Lito Zulueta tells me in an interview while doing the story. The newsroom guidelines regarding plagiarism were created before the advent of Internet, Zulueta says.

Some comments on the plagiarism story posted on Eye on Ethics are very interesting. "Beautiful article," writes Eliza, a journalism graduate who dabbles in fiction writing. "This article shows that apparently there is no such thing as a 'one-time plagiarist'. Investigations into cases like these should be done as thoroughly as possible."

Another reader, Frank, asks: "It’s been consciously taught in the classrooms that plagiarism is and will not be tolerated. How about in the newsrooms, when everyday, editors and reporters alike are faced with deadlines? Do newrooms teach this?" PJR Reports editor Luis Teodoro replies: "They used to. But I seriously doubt if it happens on a regular basis nowadays, among other reasons because the new technologies have reduced opportunities for personal interaction–i.e., reporters send in their stories via fax or e-mail and in many cases don’t have the opportunity to interact with editors."

UP journalism professor and Philippine Journalism Review managing editor Danilo Arao and Asahi Shimbun reporter Anthony Ian "Tonyo" Cruz, whom I interviewed for the story, also posted the story on their blogs (Prof. Arao's entry here, Tonyo's here). When the Media in Focus's guest coordinator asked for my help on who to guest for the episode last night, I recommended Sir Luis, Prof. Arao, and Tonyo. Thank God they all decided to appear on the "Word Theft" episode.

The hour-long episode was very engaging not only because I wrote the story. More importantly, plagiarism is an issue that strikes at the heart of the ethical values we hold dear in journalism: truth-telling. If we journalists cannot uphold the value of truth-telling when we report, how can we claim credibility and integrity? How can we gain the trust and loyalty of the citizens? How can we claim that we are doing a great service to the public, whom we are supposed to serve? Doesn't journalism exist, as Kovach and Rosenstiel clearly elucidated in their definitive book Elements of Journalism, to provide the public accurate, honest, and comprehensive information on issues they need to know in order to effectively self-govern?

Plagiarism, of course, is not a problem endemic only to journalism. How many times have we heard from the academe horror stories of students, from high school to postgraduate levels, submitting papers and projects plagiarized, some even completely sourced from--gasp!--Wikipedia?

Anyway, I feel that the hour-long Media in Focus episode was still not enough to comprehensively discuss various issues related to plagiarism--although Sir Luis, Prof. Arao, and Tonyo adequately explained some of the core issues, including the element of deception when someone copies a quote, sentence, or paragraph without proper attribution. The Media in Focus episode also happened when there were questions of alleged plagiarism over a piece written by a local lifestyle columnist (more on this case a bit later).

At a time when the role of traditional journalism in today's world is being questioned--some even predicting the eventual demise of mainstream media--journalists should prove why society still needs them. "I know full well how hard it is to defend traditional journalism today. The right and the left join in a critique that says there is no such thing as an unbiased, nonpartisan journalist and that only the despicable MSM, mainstream media, refuse to admit it. The failures of established news organizations justifiably lead to public skepticism," writes American journalist and educator Samuel Freedman (the link of which I got from my media ethics class under Prof. Chay Hofileña). "When we fall short of our own professional standards, we lend support to the cynical or naïve presumption that journalism is something anybody can do."

(Photo above from


little light said...

maybe editors are not too careful. they should be checking if the stories submitted to them are authentic. there is software that can track plagiarized sentences and phrases.

bryant said...

thanks for the comment, stox.

You are right. Software programs and online technologies are already available to check suspicious, or even actual, cases of plagiarism. And yet, a lot of our editors still do not use them when checking stories from reporters.

But one question that quickly comes to mind: can editors do all the work themselves? I remember Mr. Zulueta telling me, the problem in the Philippine press is that editors are expected not just to edit, but to also serve as style and grammar coach, mentor, and layout designer.

It's not that I think editors should get away free when they allow their news organizations--whether unwittingly or not--to serve as a platform for a plagiarist. Alecks was able to find his article was plagiarized using Google Alerts. Tonyo saw his story copied by another reporer through his regular roundup of news websites as a reporter. How many of our editors do that?

To be sure, many editors let plagiarized stories pass because they do not know that they were copied from the work of others (thus, the need to use software and online tools to detect plagiarism). But some, I fear, allow them to be published--with the full knowledge that these articles are plagiarized.

And on the other hand, what about the reporter who plagiarized? What sanctions will be imposed on him/her for committing plagiarism?

luthien said...

i know one of the accused plagiarist in the PJR article. ewan ko ba bat hindi nachecheck ng editors yun. kungsabagay wala din silang alam about the software that others are using and some of the editors are too ancient to know that such tools existed. ginagawa ko na lang para di maaccuse ng plagiarism i do more field work na lang and keep all my audio files and transcripts with me para me pruweba. handy too pag nahaharap ka sa libel cases. hehe.

as for phrases...can you plagiarize phrases? i mean "jack of all trades" or "globalization killing small third world farmers" and stuff like that? unless it is patented, pano mo masasabi na plagarized nga yun?

luthien said...

there was this real estate agent blogger who accused my colleague from another paper na plagiarist daw siya at pinalagiarize daw yung blog entry nya. it's about a real estate project kasi. i remember magkakasabay kaming nagsulat nun and we were running out of time so i think my colleague relied on materials we had with us. we have the powerpoint presentation with us (by the country's biggest real estate firm) and all the materials. syempre kung ano yung nasa materials yun yung pagbabasehan nya.

nabasa ko yung blog entry nung real estate agent-blogger na yun na pareho din naman yung information na nandon sa kit namin ("the 120-hectare expanse of prime proerty", "a lake to provide the water element into the development" -- yung mga ganung chuva). i mean her blog entry (it's more of an advertisement/PR) turned out pareho din yung mga info dun sa article ng colleague ko. iisa lang naman ang pinanggalingan nun i think kasi she sells for the country's biggest real property company. what i'm driving at is pwedeng hindi namplagiarize yung kasama ko kasi we didn't have or limited intenet access that time so she couldn't have surfed the net and zero in on the accuser's blog. it was also 3 pm na -- super mega deadline na eh may materials naman kami so bat pa siya magsusurf, di ba?

sometimes, bloggers also have to be careful about their accusations kasi unless exclusive yung idea na yun (like your own experience or whatever) at hindi yung napakageneric...i mean, how can you be exclusive about a real estate project adverisement, the information of which was freely given to press people???


masama dito pinakalat nya parang virus sa net. i told my colleague about it nung mabasa ko. dahil nagworry siya baka may backlash, tumawag siya sa desk. true enough, nakatanggap daw boss nya ng letter from that blogger demanding apology or whatever. di pinansin ng boss nya kasi more or less alam ng boss nya it was a stupid accusation (baka nga pr agency pa ng isa top bosses ng paper nila ang nagsulat ng materials for that company eh).

the reason i was able to escape that predicament, iba ang anggulo ko -- iba ang kinalabasan ng storya ko. if i didn't do that, baka naccuse din ako na namplagiarize din ako. well pwede rin namang hindi, no one reads me anyway. hehehehehe.

luthien said...

but then again, i may be wrong. =)

bryant said...

@ luthien

Thanks for the comments. And sorry for the late reply. As for phrases, you might want to ask experts on plagiarism such as Prof. Danny Arao, but personally I think it depends on the phrase used. If it is a phrase widely acknowledged that it came from this or that author, then you have to cite as such.

And I guess we also need to discuss general statements/phrases such as "jack of all trades" or "Democracy was restored in the Philippines after the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in 1986." For me, there's no plagiarism committed for general phrases or statements like that. But again, that's just me.

As for the danger of possibly committing plagiarism when we use same press releases, I think you provided the best answer as well: That, sure, we can use the press release but to 1) get additional sources and 2) maybe write a better angle. According to Prof. Arao, technically publishing the same press release hook, line and sinker is in effect plagiarism (against the PR writer or department). Or take for example, Dean Teodoro's view (in Media in Focus and an ABS-CBN News article) that when journalists do ponente reporting, in effect, it's plagiarism by consent.

What you offered involves additional research and gathering of data, but it makes sure you don't commit plagiarism. And more importantly, it makes you a better journalist than the one who just relied on the press statement. :)

Don said...

Naks! Ikaw ulit kinuha nila? sinong pumalit sayo?

bryant said...

@ don

hehe. Kaso di ako pwede that time--class eh. Sina LVT, Prof. Danny, at Tonyo ni-recommend ko.

Kelan ka mag-uupdate? Update na! Hehe.

Yuri Alfrin Aladdin said...

Good article, Sir Bry. I think you will be a professor of journalism in the future...:)

bryant said...

@ yuri

Thanks Sir Yuri. But not as good as you! :D

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