Don't just blame the player – blame the game, too

I would have hired former reporter Kendra Marr.

Why? Because her resume and my resume are so alike.

Same journalism undergrad and grad school. Same love of journalism. We both worked in the San Francisco Bay Area region. Both women of color. In other words, if I was a hiring editor interviewing her for a job, I would figure that we shared the same journalistic values.

Yet I also understand how the kind of plagiarism accusations lodged against her could lead a young reporter to resign from a good job.

Sure, the player has to shoulder the blame. But I blame the game, too.

These days chances are shrinking for an ambitious journalist to get a job that pays a middle-class salary with benefits. Young journalists no longer have the luxury of making mistakes out of the spotlight. If you want a job, you have to go directly into the big leagues. More likely than not, your job will be on the growing digital media side of the business. The side, to be polite, that is more like the Wild West than reasoned halls of journalism school.

What’s more, the Internet, and its research techniques, make it easy to find facts, stories, sources and so much more. A lot of the material is already written in coherent sentences and has attribution, which under the current rules of the game, can be an embedded link to the original news story.

Don’t get me started about cutting and pasting. Yes, I can understand how someone can cut and paste reference material on the wrong take (Google Docs, anyone?) and, in the rush to deadline, forget what is yours and what belongs to someone else. These days it’s just too easy to make a series of career-ending errors early in the game.

But the game deserves blame, too.

Let’s get real. In the world of Web journalism, lightly-sourced material (Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel call it “the journalism of assertion” rather than a journalism based on verification) is pretty much the norm. Whether it’s an advocate using crowdsourcing to flesh out a tip, a reader passing along a rumor, or a pro filing a single-source anecdote to make another blog entry, much of what the audiences reads online just isn’t sourced the same way as traditional newspaper or magazine articles.

Not only are single- or no-source articles common, it’s often difficult to tell who wrote a piece. With so many website competing for ad dollars, many publishers cut expenses by programming scripts to scrape or aggregate content from other sources, rather than paying reporters to write their own stories. Once, much of this would have been accepted widely as plagiarism. Today, it’s grudgingly accepted as a way “to increase traffic.”

In this atmosphere, there’s no denying that speed is an asset – but one that can kill careers, too. Being first, especially for websites such as Politico, is important. Maybe too important. Add to the “we’re first” syndrome with making sure your posts get seen before anyone else’s on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and whatever other flavor-of-the-day social media channel you use to hype your story, and you really might not have time to wait for that phone call or seek out an original source.

We even brag about how fast we get material up. Here’s what Adam Moss, editor of the New York Times Magazine said recently at Harvard: “The editing process online is zero, pretty much… I’m not that comfortable with that, but that’s practical reality. It’s a speed business.”

Let’s face it, we’re making up the rules while the game is underway. We hope that the traditional journalism ethics will work in the online world. We hope the foundations of accurate reporting, photography, design and editing will be transferred to a new generation. But newsroom veterans–the few that are left in newsrooms–are barely addressing these issues. I don’t know the reason. No time? Maybe. No backing from management? Maybe. No backbone? Maybe. An inner belief that these ethical lapses will all self correct when cooler heads are at the helm? Probably.

The easy way out is to take complaints of plagiarism seriously. Investigate. Allow the player the fall on his or her sword and either be suspended or resign. Then you post a detailed correction on the site, and add a paragraph or two about holding the newsroom to the highest of journalistic standards. Finally, you move on to the next news cycle.

We have to do more, too. The first step is to acknowledge that there are systemic problems in the current practice of Web journalism. These problems have created a breeding ground for ethical lapses. Yes, this is a harsh view, but until we all admit this, we can’t begin to fix the situation.

Le’s stop blaming the players. Let’s get real about changing the game.

About Pamela Moreland


  1. says:

    Yes, let’s blame Web journalism. What a silly, stupid argument. Let’s get real? Sure, how about the point that Web journalism surfaces serial plagiarists — which, ya know, is a GOOD thing?

  2. says:

    Errrr…Yes, the “game” nowadays encourages a lot of bad practices, but on the specific case that inspired your post, I have to ask, “OK, one time…maybe two … but at least SEVEN?” There is a point past which you can’t shift blame to the pressures.

  3. says:

    Excellent post. Ethics in journalism are under the gun these days, and it deserves a critical examination. A small correction… Adam Moss is a former NYT editor, he is currently editor at New York Magazine, and was quoted in the link you provided under that role.’s policies are certainly nowhere close to policies, I would argue. I don’t think the Times posts new content every six seconds… that would be a sign of the end times!

  4. says:

    In other words, you would hire a thief (which, let’s face it, is what a plagiarist is) because she went to the same school and has a similar resume? So other than you both being women, what makes that any different than …the “old boys club.”
    We’ve come a long way indeed, Virginia Slim.
    Perhaps you have never had your work picked up by another reporter and presented as their own. I have. And to defend someone because this is “the game” is insulting to journalists like myself who work our asses off to do the work and report it accurately.
    She did this *at least* seven times. That they found! And she just didn’t notice? No, she kept getting away with it, so she remained lazy.
    You’re right, there aren’t a lot of chances for young journalists anymore. Which is why those few opportunities should not be wasted on people who treat journalistic ethics like toilet paper. Theft, with all due respect, is not a game. And either is responsible journalism.
    And, although I work for a print newspaper, I do understand how these old complicated Internets work and have never once done a “cut and paste” and forgotten to give credit, whether it be a fellow reporter on staff, or another publication.
    If you want to see how it’s done, follow me on twitter. @LyndaCohen … I promise you, if it’s not my own work, it will be clearly stated.

  5. says:


    I clicked through to your column from Romenesko yesterday, and I’ve been staring at it for 24 hours, trying to figure out what I want to say about it. I just posted all of this on Twitter (@maryvale), but I wanted to include it here, too. A few points:

    1. Hiring a person with the same experience and background as you is not a great reason to make a hire. In fact, I’d strive toward the opposite — you want to work with people who are *not* like you, for diversity’s sake. I kept thinking you’d explain that, after your initial statements, but you instead set up a reason (she reminds you of yourself) why you are defending the “player.”

    2. Asserting that digital media is like the “Wild West” versus the “reasoned halls of journalism school” is unfair and almost a cliche at this point. There is great work being done online, and journalism schools are teaching digital skills and the benefits of web journalism (I’m an adjunct professor and do just that).

    3. In fact, the above statement and several others in your piece are, in fact, “journalism of assertion” — without links, backup, or reasoned logic. The third paragraph from the bottom, for example, is all guesswork. This is ironic.

    4. In regards to your overall point, about “hating the game,” you note that the web makes it easy to plagiarize (and copy and paste, using Google Docs — not sure what that reference is for). I don’t believe that the fast-paced (and it is) digital media cycle makes it easier or more enticing to commit journalistic sins. Big media (newspapers, TV, radio) has always been a pressure cooker for young journalists, and some give in to temptation — I’m thinking of “Jimmy’s World” and Jayson Blair, off the top of my head. The web is simply another medium — one with its own intricacies, sure. When did young journalists get to make mistakes out of the spotlight? At small community papers or small-market TV stations? That doesn’t make it OK to make these type of mistakes. There’s no window of time where it’s appropriate to fabricate a little, plagiarize a little, and then make it to the big leagues and your ethical lapses go away.

    5. The best journalists who work online do operate in the “speed game” — but they also take pains to get it right and do it well. They just happen to do it fast, too. And they should be commended for that.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I’m not registering for OJR to post this comment, so it will show up under my IP address (ridiculous — OJR, you need a new commenting system).

    –Mary H.