Paradigm Disguise: Systemic Influences on Newspaper Plagiarism
Lewis, Norman Paul
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A first-ever study of newspaper plagiarism behavior affirms that plagiarism is not merely an individual-level violation of journalism ethics, but results from a professional ideology that justifies copying and minimizes attribution. The inductive study analyzed all known plagiarism cases over a 10-year period at U.S. daily newspapers, complemented by depth interviews with eight of those journalists. Only five of the 76 cases studied involve the acute type of plagiarism associated with Jayson Blair of the New York Times; the vast majority of cases in a four-factor typology involve garden-variety plagiarism that afflicts exemplary journalists, including two Pulitzer-Prize winners. Even when controlling for the fact that bigger newspapers have more employees, plagiarism cases occur disproportionately more often at newspapers with circulations greater than 250,000. Larger papers also are more likely to retain journalists accused of plagiarism, while papers below that size are more likely to dismiss. Sanctions are associated with terminology; public use of "plagiarism" correlates with dismissal, while the use of synonyms is related to retention of the employee. Since Blair, the rate of cases has roughly tripled, a change that probably reflects greater transparency rather than an increase in behavior, and the percentage of plagiarism cases that ends in dismissal has grown. A model is created that identifies four antecedents of plagiarism behavior. Two causes are individual, rationalizing dishonesty and problematic techniques, and two are situational, definitional ambiguity and attribution aversion. Definitions and sanctions vary widely, in part because they are situationally determined; newspapers allow perceived intent, genre and zero-tolerance policies to define plagiarism, while sanctions are influenced by the paper's prior ethical infractions and a desire to engage in impression management. Newspapers contribute to plagiarism behavior by substituting injunctions for clear definitions and by preferring paraphrasing to attribution. The study advances the theoretical construct of paradigm disguise to explain the relatively harsh sanctions administered for plagiarism, which can be seen as exposing a journalistic pretense of originality. Plagiarism masks an underlying problem: a refusal to admit that newspaper journalism is built upon copying and imitation. The study concludes with suggestions for how newspapers can reduce plagiarism behavior.