Byline changes to syndicated content are the acceptable face of plagiarism

You’d think the ethics of plagiarism in the media would be pretty straight-forward, but as the Mail’s re-purposing of Laura Proto’s story shows, it is a bit more complicated than you might first think.

In the world of Twitter, where snark is the default setting, a lot of people read a tweet by Elmbridge Guardian reporter Laura Proto as meaning that she was annoyed at being ripped off by the content machine that is the MailOnline.

“Today I’ve had a story published on MailOnline. They’ve changed the intro and the byline, but still.” — @protesss

That wasn’t the case at all. She even had to clarify that “my previous tweets weren’t a dig at MailOnline. I just wanted to show that it is actually a story I wrote” and “It’s the first time I’ve had a story taken to national circulation, so just putting it out there.”

She is rightly excited that her story is reaching a wider audience, and doesn’t have a problem with it. But I do. And it is specifically about the byline.

I made a diff of the two versions of the story which illustrates how little the Mail has done to the text, but they’ve published it under somebody else’s name. There is a subtle distinction between licensing and syndicating content, and passing it off as your own work.

The irony is that the Mail and many other papers are so defensive about people cutting‘n’pasting their content that they automatically add a tracking code if you try and re-use their words. But here they are free to republish Laura’s work with no credit and link back or acknowledgement of the Elmbridge Guardian, which ultimately paid for the reporting.

It is funny that I should have noticed this on the same day that Jeff Jarvis was asking if there was any professional future for Jonah Lehrer after he was enveloped in a plagiarism scandal. “What is required for redemption in journalism? Is it possible?” Jarvis tweeted. I’m not surprised that people like Emily Bell are doubting there is a way back for Lehrer.

Don’t steal other people’s work. Don’t make things up. If you get caught, admit it. As a set of ethics, the principles of journalism aren’t exactly rocket science, and they are the only thing keeping us apart from the content marketeers and advertorial writers.

And that is why when Damian Thompson won’t stop reminding Johann Hari of his particular misdeeds, I tend to sympathise with Damian.

In a world where we are training lots of young journalists who may never get the opportunity to get a job in the trade, and losing years of experience from our newsrooms in the shape of lay-offs and buyouts, why are we expending effort to rehabilitate these high profile people who can’t stick to the ethics?

Except, except, except…

As Laura Proto’s story shows, as an industry all too often we care more about keeping up the appearance of having original content, rather than revealing its true provenance.

Congratulations to Laura Proto on her first story that went national, a heartfelt one that might lead to action to help parents in a similar desperate situation in the future. An industry that was always uncomfortable about lying to the reader about where words have come from might even have let her keep her name on her work.

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