Why I/We Hate Plagiarism

The whole Melania Trump-Michelle Obama speeches story has caused an outcry within the media.  For the record, here is the biggest of the plagiarisms–first, Trump’s excerpt, then Obama’s:


speeches2Most folks might find the Melania mania overblown, but it is happening for a good reason, one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with journalism:

While the media are reporting an important convention-related story, it’s more than that.  Because it involves plagiarism, we journalists are also reminding ourselves, by our strong response, just how repulsive we find the use of others’ words and ideas without credit.

Personally, as an academic and a journalist, I find plagiarism the worst offense against the printed word — worse than bias or even inaccuracy.  While I can’t speak for all journalists or all academics, I would predict it’s close to the unforgivable sin for both professions.

In the world of ideas, plagiarism is theft; it is the stealing of someone else’s communication of their thoughts, the essence of what sets us apart as humans.

Plagiarism is fraud; it’s a shortcut for someone who wants to be thought of as creative, enlightening and productive without actually being creative, enlightening and productive. It’s a lie.

Plagiarism is dumb; in the age of Google, it is so easily detected. It’s an insult to me that a student would even try. Do they really think I am as lazy and dumb as they are?

For all of the accuracy and bias accusations made against the news media (and often peremptorily discussed without sufficient response by journalists), plagiarism is dealt with quickly and severely. Whether by a professor or by an editor, the perpetrator is justly punished.

When is the last time you have heard of an accusation of plagiarism by a journalist that the defended the way that the Trump campaign is defending Melania? If one is out there, I’m not aware of it.

(And don’t mention Obama’s plagiarism of words by his friend, Deval Patrick. It was reported, Obama had a press conference to openly address it, and he admitted that these were ideas he and Patrick had discussed.)

Particularly in an age of social media, when we quickly and clearly see evidence of a journalist or an academic committing plagiarism, we want to move straight from evidence to sentencing.

I hear critics minimize the plagiarism as the stuff of politics, filled with bland platitudes that are certainly repeated, to everyone’s boredom. If that’s how politicians want to be, that’s their business.

But I won’t brush it off.  My personal ethic is to credit where I read things, even through h/t’s on Twitter. Even if I can’t remember the source, I will point out that the words are not original to me.

Ideas, and the words that express them, are too important. When an individual thinks and crafts words that move a reader or an audience, it is a wonderful process. (That we forfeit the wonder of reading such words to less intellectually stimulating pursuits is to our own loss.)

Whoever worked with Melania Trump so poorly corrupted what had been a special moment. To rationalize or breeze past it is a disgrace to any thinking human being, particularly one who aspires to be President of the United States.

The Punt-Away Juror: How I Missed Being a Juror in the Mike Hubbard Trial

The verdict is in: I’m an idiot.

I could have been in the jury pool for the Mike Hubbard trial in Opelika.

It all started when I received the following in early April:


Could it be? The Holy Grail of Lee County trials? The trial of Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard on 23 felony charges related to ethics violations?

Mind you, my excitement related more to being part of an event, a happening, something historic.

Yes, I have read my own tweets about the evidence and the delays. I harbored no illusions.  But still; this would be awesome.

I realize that Judge Jacob Walker III had mentioned an earlier trial that he would need to clear out before the Hubbard trial could begin, so I was also prepared for that.

Then, a couple of weeks later, I received a juror’s questionnaire. A long one. Lots of questions about crime, politics, the courts.  And the questionnaire cautioned that the trial could last three weeks. That was the tip.

So I sent it in and then prepared myself. I stopped tweeting about the trial and talked about it only a little. I told a few friends, when it was relevant, about the jury pool thing. They thought it was funny too.

Then my stupidity set in.

First, let me plead prior experience — and while I do so, sound like one of my own students after missing a class event.

I had been called to jury duty twice when I lived in California. You were notified that you were in the pool, then the day before, you were contacted and told whether to show up.

Then, I noted in the papers that jury selection would begin on May 16.  Yes, I KNOW that I did not hear anything from Trisha Campbell, court administrator. Yes, I KNOW that my most recent official instructions said May 9.

So, after not getting a call I wasn’t promised, I did what any know-it-all professor would do. I didn’t show up. I looked forward to the fun on May 16.

Friday morning, at our weekly Chappy’s crew breakfast, I even asked Sheriff Jay Jones about parking. He told me it would be catch-as-catch-can, but he pointed out a couple of less-used parking areas.

Then, the afternoon mail brought this letter:


I was mortified, more than usual. When I teach Reporting, I take my students to cover trials at Lee County District Court.  Trisha Campbell and her assistant, Rebecca, have always been helpful to my students — letting us know which trials were at a better point for coverage.

And now, I had blown her off. I e-mailed her immediately and apologized.

So on Monday morning, while Alabama news hounds focused on the T.K. Davis Justice Center, I typed this blog.  I also served on the jury for a master’s thesis defense, since I had lost my excused absence.

I would not march into Judge Walker’s court with 100-plus other prospective jurors and hope that Elizabeth White (WTVM) or Katherine Haas (Opelika-Auburn News) would see me.

All because I am a too-cool-for-school idiot who can’t follow directions. Don’t look at me. It’s too hideous.

We went to Price’s BBQ house for breakfast, to soothe the hurt. There I saw Dr. Gerald Johnson, another Chappy’s regular and a former political science professor. He was disappointed. “You could have been a footnote to history,” he said. “Now you are a footnote to a footnote.”

Or maybe ignorant foot fungus to a footnote.

I seriously doubt that I would have ended up on the jury. They hear “professor,” they hear “journalism,” and if it were possible, a spring-loaded chair would have boing-ed me back to the catch-as-catch-can parking lot.


Plus, I hear that employment at Auburn disqualified a few prospective jurors anyway.

But I have learned my lesson. So I can announce: if anything comes of the charges against Gov. Bentley, Roy Moore, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth, or anyone, I am willing to serve.

I’ve got this “show up at the correct date and time” thing down, I think.

Peyton Manning and One Shaky Source

One shaky source is making Peyton Manning’s life miserable.

The Al-Jazeera news network ran a report on the shady network of sports doping. Just past the 40-minute mark, the report — much of it undercover taping — shows a pharmacist claiming that he sent human growth hormone (HGH) to Manning in 2011, and that he addressed the packages to the Bronco QB’s wife to help hide the purchases.

The revelation was explosive and has led to angry denials by Manning himself. It has also touched off a huge debate about whether the 18-season veteran, one of the NFL’s most reliable role models, is instead a cheater.

My concern, as a journalism professor, is the unreliable nature of the Manning info. The Al-Jazeera report relies on one source — Charlie Sly — for the information, and Sly himself recants at about the 47:35 mark.

The report presents no receipts or correspondence, no second source acknowledging Manning’s involvement. Just one interview, with the source later presenting himself as flaky.

The NFL Sunday/social media blowup over this has exploded past this troubling detail, as can be expected. It is obvious that the majority of those commenting have not viewed the report itself, to see the thin ice supporting the information.

I’m not judging whether Manning used HGH. I’m wondering why a respected news organization released a news report before it was ready.

Al-Jazeera or another organization might come up with a second source (a more reliable source, I hope). At that point, the ethical question becomes, Why not wait? Why run the story before it’s ready? And responsible journalism ethical standards dictate that a story is not ready until you have a second source.

Does Manning have a case for libel? As a public figure, probably not — even though Sly’s recanting brings the information a little closer to “actual malice,” the definition of which includes “reckless disregard of whether (the information) was false or not.”

Plus, within the definition of public figure status, Manning has the means to dispute the report within the media, and he is obviously using them.

Can Sly, who is more of a private citizen than Manning, sue for invasion of privacy? It’s an interesting intersection between two conflicting rules. On the one hand, Al-Jazeera is safe on the issue of consent; Texas is a “one-party state,” meaning only one person needs to be aware of the taping.

On the other hand, previous Supreme Court decisions do not 100 percent permit deception in taping a private citizen or business, and the Al-Jazeera report was based on an athlete, Liam Collins, deceptively claiming he was looking for shortcuts, legal or not, to restart his athletic career. I don’t know whether this conflict has been resolved within the courts.

But from an ethical perspective, Al-Jazeera is on much shakier ground, and needed more corroboration before releasing information that so damaged one athlete’s reputation.

To contrast, I remember a mini-storm this summer, surrounding the death of legendary SEC/NFL quarterback Ken Stabler. A report on Stabler’s death July 8 was released on the Tuscaloosa News web site and then taken down quickly, but not before it was cited and the news spread nationwide.

The sports writer generating the report, Aaron Suttles, had a good source informing him that Stabler had died, but was awaiting a second one to confirm it before posting the article he had ready.  Due to miscommunication, a digital staff member posted the report.

Anyone who knows Suttles recalls his mortification and regret — not because the story was not accurate (obviously it was, as would be demonstrated), but because it was not “ready” in terms of sourcing, even as subsequent events confirmed the information’s reliability.

If only Al-Jazeera were so careful on a story that involves an active SEC/NFL quarterback, who now must deal with the public fallout of a shakily-sourced report. Manning, the audience, and the journalism profession deserve better.