The Plague of Online Plagiarism: A Case Study of the Anatomy of Journalistic Theft from my Facebook Page
The decline of Journalism Standards and Ethics in the Age of the Internet
By Nate Thayer
Being a freelance journalist is tough enough these days, and I am not alone in providing what I do for a living far too often for free these days.
But worse is the alarmingly common and increasing trend in the age of online journalism of having ones work baldly being plagiarized, reprinted without compensation, citation, or attribution to the sourcing by for profit media organizations. Plagiarism is widely defined as “copying or stealing someone else’s words or ideas and claiming or presenting them as if they were your own.” Details on the definitions, origins, and concept of plagiarism are provided at the end of this post.
For freelancers without the institutional support and resources to effectively object to this most immoral, egregious and serious violation of journalistic standards and ethics, this is not a new problem. But since the utter collapse of the business model for traditional media outlets that has evaporated most jobs in journalism as online media has transformed the profession, its effects are concrete and crippling.
For purposes of emphasis, I offer a couple of details that I am less than comfortable with sharing. These are times in which I am usually unable to pay my rent or bills in a timely manner and keep sufficient food in the refrigerator. I am unable to afford such things as an iPhone, to repair my currently non-functioning most important possession, my sole computer—the very lifeline that puts food on my table, clothes to protect me from the elements, and shelter over my head. To be fully honest, these are times I cannot even afford an internet subscription ( I place my laptop by an open window and illicitly tap into neighbors wifi while having to constantly shift the position of the machine to get a strong enough signal). Mine is not an unusual position if one surveys the state of freelance journalists over the recent past.
So, when less than a couple hours ago, I noticed a suspiciously familiar news story that is now being prominently featured in major profitable news outlets that I suspected was more than a coincidence, I did some cursory research.
Google News is at the moment featuring a story by the London Mail titled: “Did Cambodia’s first lady mock Obama with a ‘greeting that’s meant for servants?’” By “Lydia Warren and Daily Mail Reporter” posted at 13:48 EST, 22 November 2012
The story prominently featured a picture of Hun Sen’s wife and President Obama exchanging a greeting with traditional Asian clasped hands. The Photo caption of the AP picture read: “Coded slight? First Lady Rany greeted the president with a pressed-hands greeting typically used only with servants.” The text of their story was clearly compiled to give analysis, significance and context of the photo.
The story read: “Just before dinner, all appeared to be well as Sen formally introduced his wife, Cambodia’s First Lady Bun Rany, to the president. Rany greeted Obama with the traditional ‘sampeah’ greeting — a pressed-hands gesture that shows respect for a person. Where a person’s hands are placed and how deeply they bow during the gesture indicates their level of respect for the person they are greeting.
Rany placed her hands at chest level and tilted the upper half of her body slightly, leading the editorial board at Investor’s Business Daily to believe that she was showing disrespect to the president.
”First lady Bun Rany greeted Obama with a traditional “sampeah” pressed-hands greeting reserved for servants, a little dig that was probably lost on him but not to Asians,’ the editorial board wrote.
The Daily mail was practicing a common, growing, and acceptable tactic of today’s major media—picking up stories published elsewhere and tweaking them , presenting them as much as is ethically acceptable as their own. But they fully cited the source of their story to Investors Business News and the photograph to the AP, even though the entire story was essentially lifted from another publication, they played within the rules of proper citation and accreditation.
Then a few hours ago another story, by Asian News International (ANI) was prominently featured on Yahoo News with a story posted “12 minutes ago titled: “Did Cambodia’s First Lady mock Obama with greeting typically ‘meant for servants’?
The Asian News International based in Delhi, India, provides multimedia news to 50 bureaus in India and throughout Asia., claiming to be ”South Asia’s leading Multimedia News Agency providing content for every information platform, including TV, Internet, broadband, newspapers and mobiles….including breaking news and features with regional perspectives, along with politics, business, health, technology, travel and entertainment content. The New Delhi head office is staffed by professionals round the clock 365 days a year.”
The story, datelined “Phnom Penh, Nov. 23 (ANI): US President Barack Obama’s historic first trip to Southeast Asia ended with a questionably disrespectful greeting Cambodia’s First Lady Bun Rany shared with him.” The story continued quoting the Daily Mail: “According to the Daily Mail, Obama met Prime Minister Hun Sen that White House officials described as tense…Just before dinner, Sen formally introduced his wife, Cambodia’s First Lady Bun Rany, to the president. Rany greeted Obama with the traditional ‘sampeah’ greeting, a pressed-hands gesture that signifies respect for a person. Where a person’s hands are placed and how deeply they bow during the gesture indicates their level of respect for the person they are greeting, the report said. Rany placed her hands at chest level and tilted the upper half of her body slightly, leading the editorial board at Investor’s Business Daily to believe that she was showing disrespect to the president, the report added. “First lady Bun Rany greeted Obama with a traditional “sampeah” pressed-hands greeting reserved for servants, a little dig that was probably lost on him but not to Asians,’ the editorial board wrote. A sampeah at mouth level is reserved for bosses, elders or higher-ranking people. For parents, grandparents or teachers, a sampeah is typically raised to nose level and when saluting the king or monks, the sampeah is raised to eyebrow level, the report said. According to Investor’s Business Daily, however, Rany’s sampeah was only ‘fit for a servant’. (ANI)”
So here were the two largest News aggregators, Yahoo and Google, who make billions of dollars in profit, promoting a story by two highly profitable media conglomerates, the Daily Mail and the Asian News International, written up on Tuesday November 22. Both of these news media conglomerates picked up the story that was cited as originating with a for profit business that publishes, among offering other investment and financial services, the Investor’s Business Daily. But both the Daily Mail and ANI, along with Google and Yahoo, played within the acceptable rules of ethics, fully citing albeit as an entirely single sourced article, Investor’s Business News.
But the conduct and apparently transparently egregious intentional ethical behavior of Investor’s Business News is entirely another matter. IBN is also another for profit, and decidedly right wing business and media outlet that has an openly very conservative editorial bias and also sells other business services.
The Daily Mail story was published on November 22. The ANI story was then published on November 23. Google and Yahoo catapulted the reader reach of both articles by featuring them on their news site that picks what it deems the most important stories from thousands of outlets worldwide on November 23rd.
So then I searched and found the Investor’s Business News story, which was categorized as an editorial; and dated as published on November 20 at “07:01 PM ET” It was titled “Obama’s Southeast Asia Trip All Style, No Substance” with the sub headline “Investor’s Business Daily Editorial for November 20, 2012: Obama’s Southeast Asia Trip All Style, No Substance.”
The IBD editorial was a rather virulent right wing anti Obama piece under the category “Diplomacy. It began “So amid all the colorful and flirty photos from President Obama’s first tour of Southeast Asia, what did he actually accomplish? As usual, he served himself politically in what was largely a Potemkin mission abroad. It was obvious enough from the rube like gaffes that the president hasn’t been particularly interested or attentive to the affairs of Thailand, Burma or Cambodia as he made his first trip since his re-election. It was pretty much all style over substance.”
The entire story had not a single source, citation, or attribution which under rudimentary journalistic guidelines represents that its entire content originated with its own reporting of both facts and ideas presented.
Like the Daily Mail and ANI stories, the IBN story prominently featured that aforementioned AP photograph of the encounter between president Obama and Cambodian first lady madam Hun Sen, with the text and analysis written around the photo to explain its significance.
The IBN story began with a general denigration of Obama’s trip to Burma as gaffe ridden and counterproductive in a clearly partisan driven polemic. “In his tour of Burma, billed as an historic first visit since Burma’s 2007 move to democracy, it was clear he was in way over his head, even on small things” and followed this with “It didn’t help that he ignored the real heroes who helped push Burma toward a more open system — President and Mrs. Bush, as well as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell, seeming to take credit for it himself.”
This was followed by: “On his trip to Cambodia, a country he claimed didn’t deserve a visit due to its strongman government, first lady Bun Rany greeted Obama with a traditional “sampeah” pressed-hands greeting reserved for servants, a little dig that was probably lost on him but not to Asians.”
While all three stories prominently featured and were written around large sized reproductions of the AP Photo of the controversial exchange of greetings between Mrs. Hun Sen and Obama, the Daily Mail and ANI carefully provided credit to the source of their information, Including the text, citing IBN, and the photo crediting the AP.
The Investor’s Business Daily did neither, offering no citation, quotes or attribution to the premise of the body of the article, and even left the photo uncredited. Given that the AP photo was distributed with a watermark of their copyright, and, speaking as a former AP correspondent, requires full attribution on all it material which is all copyrighted.
Investor’s Business Daily sourced exactly no one in either their written text story and offered no credit to the owner and author of the photograph.
This is where I come in.
It didn’t take much of a cursory amateur sleuthing to determine that Investor’s Business Daily had, in fact plagiarized—stolen–virtually the entire substance of their story and analysis from me, on not just the significance of the photographic depiction, but directly plagiarized from my writings and analysis of that photograph, in addition to the wholesale lifting of my writings in their analysis of Burma, while twisting it entirely by intentionally taking out context that detracted from their politically motivated missive.
Their opinion being forwarded is not an issue of contention, but rather the process of how they obtained it , took credit for it, distorted it, and plagiarized it intentionally leaving its readers with the dishonest impression it was their own generated analysis.
There is not a more serious ethical violation in journalism than what the Investor’s Business Daily engaged in. If I had conducted myself in a remotely similar matter, I would have been summarily fired, with good cause, from the numerous credible news media organizations that have employed me during my 30 year career. And probably died from shame and embarrassment as a result.
This is how my very serious accusations, not made lightly or without due research diligence, evolved. And its origins are from my Facebook postings.
On November 19, some of you will remember, I posted the AP picture of the greetings between the Cambodian First lady and president Obama and suggested it was an intentional gesture of disrespect by virtue of the positioning of Madame Hun Sen’s clasped hands. I sourced the photo to AP, and offered my entirely original analysis (if reasonably debated in its accuracy in the thread that followed). My posting accompanying the photo read in its entirety: “Note how low Ms. Hun Sen’s clasped hands are. The higher the ‘wai’ is towards one’s own head is a specific sign of level of respect intended towards the recipient. This level of wai is used for those considered subordinate, younger, or of marginal importance. Obama’s briefing papers must have included instructions on using this traditional gesture of respect, but I suspect not given details of the nuances of usage. Here, he is being directly given a sign of disrespect, roughly the equivalent of a limp, short handshake. I suspect Madame Hun Sen may be reflecting conversations she overheard between her husband and his loyalists.”
All of my FB postings are posted for viewing to my “friends” list only, and intentionally not “public”. And this is for a reason. While I know it is far from foolproof, I choose my friends largely based on my impression of their ethics and quality of upholding ethical standards in general both personally and professionally, with those practicing the noble craft of journalism in particular mind.
My post resulted in a reasoned an substantive debate in the comments thread that followed. And the post was shared by two people. In taking a closer look at those who shared my post, within a few minutes I found that one of them was by a person who lists her employer as Investors Business Daily. On her friends list is one “Andrew Malcolm”, the author of the Investor’s Business Daily story of which this far too long missive objects to and focuses on. Mr. Malcolm’s biography on the IBN website reads in full: “A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm joined Investor’s Business Daily October 2011. He formerly served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four.”
On another post I made on November 19 which was accompanied by a photo of president Obama kissing Aung San Suu Kyi awkwardly on the cheek, the ensuing thread of again reasoned by debated comments which included some which I viewed as unnecessarily partisan, and I added my two cents on my views: “Let’s not impose partisanship where it doesn’t need to exist. The fact is that during Clinton’s tenure, it was primarily republicans who carried the banner of the Burmese opposition. They included John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and Dana Rohrabacher. Those three, and others, continued to support those fighting for human and political rights in SE Asia from the 1980’s through now, and deserve due credit, through both republican and democratic administrations. Clinton’s SE Asia policy while in power kowtowed to his domestic political agenda, and George Bush didn’t really give a damn about much of anything outside the U.S., little less Asia unless it fit his ideological doctrines. Due credit for Burma and other obscure countries, with no hometown political electoral capital, deservedly belong to many republicans who did the right thing regardless of the fact it meant absolutely nothing to their home constituency. Dana Rohrabacher stands out among them. Some view him as a nutcase, but to Cambodians and Burmese who not long ago had few friends, he and others were lone voices demanding for Burma and Cambodia and elsewhere… The principles of freedom which is about the only thing that distinguishes the U.S. outside its borders is truly a heartfelt sentiment that thank god has no domestic internecine borders in Washington.”
That exact reference, down to those exact names of U.S republican politicians, and the republican role in supporting Burmese dissident voices, was reprinted virtually verbatim in the IBN article—with no attribution or citation. As was exactly the same case as the virtually verbatim republishing of my analysis of the Obama-Mrs. Hun Sen exchange of traditional Asian greetings and the analysis of nuances of the meanings of how they were exchanged—again with not attribution, clearly intentionally giving the impression that both the words and ideas were original to Investor’s Business Daily. The Investor’s Business Daily editorial quote, “It didn’t help that he ignored the real heroes who helped push Burma toward a more open system — President and Mrs. Bush, as well as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell, seeming to take credit for it himself” would prompt far more than red flags from any sophomore student of journalist ethics. In fact, for the publications I work for it would get me fired for plagiarism
The same Investor’s Business Daily FB friend of mine shared and commented on both these posts of mine of November 19th and the IBD article was written the following day, authored by her colleague at IBD who is listed as a friend on her FB page. I do not believe that my FB friend engaged in any unethical behavior herself. I know her as a reputable, serious and ethical journalist. I am considerably less convinced the same is true of the author of the IBN article, who, as the author, bears sole and full responsibility for any violations of journalistic standards and ethics.
Why am I seemingly making a big deal out of what many might view as a small issue. Because it isn’t a minor transgression. It is the most serious of unacceptable conduct against the integrity of the profession of journalism, and it is alarmingly growing in frequency in the age of online so called reporting. It is an act of intentional deception of the readers, and violates the most important and fundamental premise to that it at the heart of reputable journalism. There is a reason why journalists rank in public opinion polls on integrity and trustworthiness alongside politicians, used car salesmen, and lawyers.
On a more personal note, I, along with thousands of other journalists who have devoted our lives to defending, promoting and practicing what I consider a profession vital to any free society. And I am tired of having my reputation soiled by association. And I am tired of being largely helpless to effectively object. Not to mention this is how I make a living and I don’t like, nor can I afford having my work stolen. And like it even less when it is done by those who would never put up with such conduct directed towards them. I have little patience for hypocrisy or unethical behavior. Full stop. And since I write for a living, tonight I am writing about this because I can and because I am correct.
At the bottom of the page where Investor’s Business Daily published this article which should result in the author and his editor, if he even has one, is the IBD own warning to anyone who would attempt to conduct themselves towards them in exactly the manner they went to significant acrobatics and deception to perpetrate on its readers and the integrity of the profession of journalism:
INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY
Notice: Information contained herein is not and should not be construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell securities. The information has been obtained from sources we believe to be reliable; however no guarantee is made or implied with respect to its accuracy, timeliness, or completeness. The information and content are subject to change without notice. You may use IBD’s Services and Subscriber-Only features solely for personal, non-commercial use. Removal or alteration of any trademark, copyright or other notices will result in legal action taken to protect our rights. You may not distribute IBD’s Services or Subscriber-Only features to others, whether or not for payment or other consideration, and you may not modify, copy, frame, reproduce, sell, publish, transmit, display or otherwise use or revise any portion of IBD’s Services or Subscriber-Only features. For information regarding use of IBD’s Services for any purpose, please see our Terms and Conditions of Use. © 2000-2012 Investor’s Business Daily, Inc. All rights reserved. Investor’s Business Daily, IBD, CAN SLIM and corresponding logos are registered trademarks of Investor’s Business Daily, Inc Copyright and Trademark Notice | Privacy Statement”
The merriem-webster dictionary says the definition of plagiarism is “transitive verb: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source” and for the “intransitive verb: “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”
Dictionary.reference.com defines plagiarism as: pla·gia·rism [pley-juh-riz-uhm, -jee-uh-riz-]
1.an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author: It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau’s plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne. Synonyms: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off.
2.a piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation: “These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms,” the editor said, tossing them angrily on the floor.
It quotes the “Word Origin & History” as “plagiarism: 1621, from L. plagiarius “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer,” used in the sense of “literary thief” by Martial, from plagium “kidnapping,” from plaga “snare, net,” from PIE base *p(e)lag- “flat, spread out.” Plagiary is attested from 1597. “
The American Heritage Cultural Dictionary plagiarism definition is “Literary theft. Plagiarism occurs when a writer duplicates another writer’s language or ideas and then calls the work his or her own. Copyright laws protect writers’ words as their legal property. To avoid the charge of plagiarism, writers take care to credit those from whom they borrow and quote.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines plagiarism as: “the act of taking the writings of another person and passing them off as one’s own. The fraudulence is closely related to forgery and piracy-practices generally in violation of copyright laws.”
Wikipedia sums it up quite well: “Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work, but the notion remains problematic with nebulous boundaries. The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to “copy the masters as closely as possible” and avoid “unnecessary invention.” And continued with “The 18th century new morals have been institutionalized and enforced prominently in the sectors of academia and journalism, where plagiarism is now considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics, subject to sanctions like expulsion and other severe career damage. Not so in the arts, which not only have resisted in their long-established tradition of copying as a fundamental practice of the creative process, but with the boom of the modernist and postmodern movements in the 20th century, this practice has been heightened as the central and representative artistic device. Plagiarism remains tolerated by 21st century artists.
Plagiarism is not a crime per se but is disapproved more on the grounds of moral offence, and cases of plagiarism can involve liability for copyright infringement.”
It seems quite evident that the Investor’s Business Daily firs quite seamlessly as a poster child of these characterizations based on their behavior.
I welcome any response, correction, or comments. And I damn well hope that Investor’s Business Daily doesn’t make the mistake of either ignoring or attempting to mitigate, downplay, or justify what appears to be, what seems to me, a rather irrefutable, firmly documented, convincingly researched, and carefully worded argument that I document above.