Plagiarism Hurts Us All

Matthew Milam of brought to my attention the story of film critic Paul Fischer accused of plagiarism in his reviews.  The evidence is a number of passages in his articles that are nearly verbatim from marketing materials provided by studios to promote their films.  Mr. Fischer does not write for a print publication but has written extensively for online sites such as Moviehole and DarkHorizons.  The point of my writing about this is not to add to any personal attacks against Mr. Fischer, but to address the larger debate over the validity of online media journalists who attend press junkets and receive complimentary passes and materials in return for coverage on Web sites and blogs. 

Traditional print media have also had their plagiarism scandals and embarrassing situations when journalists have fabricated sources (remember the New York Times scandal?) -- even our Vice President Joe Biden was caught in a plagiarism scandal way back when. Also, professional (i.e., "paid") movie critics from local newspapers, TV programs, and radio stations have also been known to hog the press junket circuit and abuse or misuse their journalistic access.

If bloggers and online writers want to be treated as professional journalists, then they need to follow proper journalistic standards, just like the pros. Nevertheless, I don't like when the bad apples who cut corners or do shady things get lumped together with all other bloggers and Internet writers.  Their inappropriate actions discredit all of us who use the Internet as an important and influential means of communication. 

Dark Horizons has been, in my opinion, a very well-respected site that has established itself as an excellent source of information about the film industry. I have great respect for its owner, Garth Franklin. If it is true that accusations about the accused writer have been brought up in the past, it is a shame that they apparently were not taken seriously until this latest plagiarism incident blew up.  Hopefully it will lead to more diligence by all.

Quoted in the Vancouver Sun article that Mr. Milam shared, Edward Douglas of ComingSoon implies that using passages from press releases and other marketing materials is fine because that is what the publicists want.  But I need to stress that taking words, even from press kits, and passing them off as your own is still plagiarism. It's wrong to do it in a school term paper, it's wrong to do it in a speech, it's wrong to do it in a print publication, and it's wrong to do it online. If you use outside sources (whatever they might be), you must quote them, credit them, or provide a link to them. Otherwise, use your own words when you write. Simple. 

Bloggers and cyberwriters have enough trouble being taken seriously without incidents like this further adding to the lack of credibility for what they write.  Say no to copying-and-pasting without proper credit!


V.R. LaForge said…
Great post as usual Nick, though I need to disagree on your definition of plagiarism. A press release is just that...a release of information to the press - uncopyrighted. I agree that it is deceiving and perhaps unethical for someone to essentially promote a movie under the guise of a review. But did you know that a significant portion of TV news is a result of Public Relations marketing. I know because I used to produce what are known as Video News Releases and B-Rolls.

Essentially these are "news stories" created by major corporations, edited together by pr firms and distributed via satellite for news stations to pick up. The firms provide a script and voiceover, though most times a reporter from the station will record their own voice over the one included with the piece, making it "their" story, though they did nothing more than read a script in an editing suite. I can point these out to you pretty easily if you ever want to watch a local newscast.

So, deceiving, yes. Plagiarism, no. It goes to show, though, that with media as such a huge part of our society, from our personal lives, to entertainment to the election of our leaders, it is essential that viewers be educated to the tricks used to influence their thoughts.

Nick said…
VRL, I see what you're saying. Working in the Public Relations business myself, I know that we always hope the media pick up our press releases and other marketing collateral as we try to spread the word on what we're promoting. But my colleagues and I would still be miffed if someone put their name on something we had written.

Also, there's the credibility factor. If all the media simply regurgitated our PR materials, the audience we were trying to reach would become cynical of ourt message. That's why editorial content stemming from PR is always much more valuable and effective that paid advertising. And when some journalists take the easy way and just copy and paste material from media kits without crediting the source, it minimizes their impact when such actions are discovered. First, the public loses confidence in them as an independent voice, and then the industry also loses confidence in them as a media source that will have the most impact.

And such actions, without proper credit, (including those pre-packaged news stories you mentioned) hurt us all because it turns the public into cynics so that even genuine articles and news reports become suspect.

It may not technically be plagiarism or outright prosecutable theft, but it's still shady, misleading, unethical, and wrong.