Thursday, September 16, 2010

Friday Media Rant: Copy and Paste Journalism

A few years ago, a young person who worked in a local TV newsroom was fired, after his bosses learned that he copied some news stories off the website of a competing TV station and pasted the material onto his station’s website. He told his fellow employees that he didn’t see what the big deal was; after all, once something is on the internet, it’s anybody’s property.

While you’d think anyone with an ounce of common sense would know that stealing news copy from a competing station and passing it off as your own work is grounds for firing (and will run your station’s legal counsel’s bill big-time), you might be surprised at the attitude an awful lot of young people have about plagiarism. An article about plagiarism on the UW campus in the Cap Times this week revealed a stunningly cavalier attitude from young people about what is and isn’t theft.

One of the examples in the article concerned a student who submitted a paper to a teacher, essentially copied and pasted from Wikipedia. One of the many excuses the young Einstein used to “defend” his action is that Wikipedia articles are written by many authors, hence it’s really no one person’s work.

This kid will probably become the President of Fox News some day.

In many broadcast newsrooms across America, this sort of “copy and paste” (often and erroneously referred to as “cut and paste”) journalism existed long before Bill Gates’ staff invented the “copy” and “paste” functions. Radio and TV newsroom employees have been stealing stories from the local daily paper for generations. For the last decade, though, it’s been easier just to steal the stuff off the newspaper’s website, which means you don’t even have to BUY the paper to steal its news.

Those old-schoolers who gathered broadcast news had a dodge to get around outright theft of the newspaper’s copy, and that workaround is called “attribution.” In other words, when you steal the paper blind, you just write the phrase “The State Journal is reporting” in front of the copy you’ve stolen. Now, I constantly hear stories stolen from the paper without even a professional-courtesy attribution.

Channel 27 is making a big stink about Russ Feingold’s people using snippets from WKOW-TV newscasts to make an ad exposing Ron Johnson’s duplicity about businesses getting help from the government. It’s completely legal, and Channel 27 management knows it, and their huffing and puffing about it is another sad example of fake outrage in an attempt to drive ratings. (It also underscores how close the race is between Feingold and Johnson.)

Back when I was stealing news from the paper to write my broadcasts, I’d usually not only attribute the story to the paper, but often I’d even name the reporter who wrote it…”in George Hesselberg’s / Pat Simms’/ Doug Moe’s/ and many others too numerous to recount here/ story in the State Journal this morning….” Heck, after 20 years in the news biz in Madison, I’d come to know quite a few print reporters and columnists personally, and I’d never be able to face them if I stole their stuff without acknowledgement.

It’s one thing to copy and paste someone else’s work and pass it off as your own; it adds another ethical and personal dimension if you do it to a friend or acquaintance.

PS: Carol Clegg, wherever you are, I’m still sorry that I stole your report on Catholic Baptism in the 4th grade at SS. Peter and Paul School in Hortonville in 1958.


  1. become the President of Fox News



  2. I taught public speaking to high school students and once heard a speech in 5th period that sounded a lot like the one I had heard in 3rd period. I knew neither had written the material. Another time I had a student talk about events of "last year", not even bothering to update the year in her work as she lifted it word-for-word from the source. It's only going to get worse, I fear....