Professional journalism isn’t facing a plagiarism problem. It’s facing an originality failure.
And you can’t blame the Internet. Our originality breakdown results from many pressures – the overwhelming volume of writing incessantly pushed out into the digital space, the pressure on writers to feed a content beast that’s never satiated, the diminishing economic forces that support professional writing.
The Internet preceded all of these changes, but it isn’t itself the cause.
The methods we use to groom writers to become original thinkers in the modern media environment are suspect. In fact, they’re largely absent.
This week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente came under scrutiny for relying too heavily on the work of others. She’s not alone.
We have no way of knowing whether, proportionally, there’s more plagiarism in journalism today than there was 20 years ago. But we do know that commentators now work in very different circumstances. It used to be that local columnists used the phone and their feet. They spent time out of the office, just like their reporter colleagues. They went to the bar, the barbershop, the local college, the courtroom.
Why? Because, that’s where ideas took shape. Talking and thinking, thinking and talking, then trying it out on the keyboard. That’s how writers write. Sometimes, the work was good; more often, it was mediocre. Sometimes, editors sent it back. Whatever the quality, the ideas belonged to the columnist, informed by her reporting and research but grown in the writer’s head.
This isn’t to condemn the research patterns of modern journalists, who start their thinking with a Google search. We can’t pretend the media world hasn’t changed. These days, we must see always what others have written before we begin – and there’s so much that’s been written about any given topic because writing now is mostly the continuation of a conversation already in play.
Before the Internet, newsrooms were lucky enough to stumble into a method for growing writers. It wasn’t perfect and there certainly were scandals, such as when The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke fabricated a character in a story that went on to win the Pulitzer, or when Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle stole material from comedian George Carlin. But those were few and far between.
These days, it feels like hardly a week goes by without a professional journalist being exposed for plagiarism, fabrication or patchwriting, which is a failed attempt at paraphrasing that over-relies on the original writer’s syntax and vocabulary. That last transgression is likely today’s most common sin, according to Rebecca Moore Howard, the Syracuse University professor of writing and rhetoric who coined the term.
Originality is elusive today in every place that people write – not just in journalism, but in academia, professional writing, book publishing, speech writing and politics.
In our panic to keep up with a changing world, we’ve failed to identify new methods for originality. We need to look to the writer-editor relationship, to the community of writers and thinkers and to the very process that writers use to go from nothing to something.
We’re mystified by the prospect of building a culture that breeds original thinking and writing in today’s digital world. Yet, we can look to writers who are successfully hitting the mark of originality and imitate their methods.
Today’s most original successful writers often combine the new and the old to foster their thinking. Writers such as Anne Lamott or columnist Connie Schultz test out their ideas in social media settings such as Twitter or Facebook. And they stay grounded in the real world, allowing for the influence of other people and experiences.
If we’re going to solve the problem of unoriginal writing, we need to focus on the process of writing, instead of simply careening from one failure to another.
Kelly McBride is a senior faculty member for ethics reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.