This headline was plagiarized, please don’t Google it
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As the Public Editor of the New York Times says, journalistic plagiarism is in the news.
(I didn’t steal that idea, I attributed it, which is a key difference between plagiarizing and not plagiarizing.)
Some of the people in the news for committing journalistic plagiarism have the same name as me. Don’t get confused: I am not Benny Johnson.
I did not work for a paragon of modern journalism called The Blaze before being hired to cover politics in inventive ways at Buzzfeed in 2012. I did not plagiarize parts of 41 stories I wrote at Buzzfeed, before being admirably fired by Buzzfeed.
By the way, I do like Buzzfeed. A lot. Even when Buzzfeed doesn’t like me. I just talked to one of the site’s senior editors about why she stopped following people like me (read: dudes) on Twitter.
But even though I go by Ben instead of Benny, I have been thinking a lot about plagiarism this week. It’s one of the things journalists are most scared of, and for good reason. Even if it’s a mistake, it’s rarely an honest one. Unlike in the world of fiction, journalistic plagiarism is a scarlet letter — a final judgement. Plagiarism is the thing you do that almost immediately undermines all of the other work you’ve ever done.
What’s interesting is that media in the Internet age spins ever closer to regular idea theft. Rewriting or re-contextualizing the hard reporting work of others is its own kind of job, and hard-working people are doing it all the time. I was just talking with a Marketplace reporter yesterday who was excited about an idea — an angle, really — but was worried she was actually plagiarizing her own work from a few years back. She was Googling like mad to try and avoid it.
That’s what’s also strange about the Internet age. It is at once easier than ever to plagiarize and easier than ever to catch plagiarizers. The number of sources you could steal from has increased tenfold, but the nature of how those sources are organized online makes it easy to catch people. Yet another problem solved by big data.
That’s how Benny Johnson got caught. Ironically, he was shaming another website for plagiarizing his work. And then some bloggers took a closer look at his work. It soon became clear, as Slate’s David Weigel noted: “Anyone with a working Google machine can compare Johnson’s text, which typically consists of captions below photos or gifs, to existing content on Wikipedia or Yahoo — the sleuthing has turned up more short phrases and sentences that look cloned.”
Maybe some day writers of all kinds will work in software that is constantly Googling each sentence we write to see if it’s been written elsewhere. And maybe that’s good news. Today I’m just glad that on the searchable Internet, I go by Ben, not Benny.