Plagiarism… a common affliction with senior journalists

13 Aug,2012

By Ranjona Banerji

 

“I apologise unreservedly,” said Fareed Zakaria’s most recent tweet on August 10. And here’s the statement attached:

“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, which was also a topic of conversation on this blog, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere.”

 

This is how Zakaria describes himself on twitter: “Editor at TIME Magazine. Host of CNN’s GPS: Sunday @ 10am and 1pm ET in the U.S. Blogger at CNN.com/GPS.

New York, NY”.

 

Now he stands suspended from all his jobs, for at least one month pending investigation.

 

The odd thing is, Zakaria need not have picked up those bits from Lepore’s article and passed them off as his own. He could have given her due credit, which would have been the right and honourable thing to do. He could have read as much as he could on the subject and drawn his own conclusions. He could have used facts from a variety of sources and made an argument based on that. But why pass off a few paragraphs from someone else’s work as your own?

 

Sadly, this is a common affliction with senior journalists. Get someone junior to do the leg work because you’re so busy being a celebrity, obviously you don’t have the time to do it yourself. That obviously means that you don’t have the time to check either. Throw your opinion together, safe in the feeling that your name will carry you through.

 

Or, it could be that you did the Google search yourself…

 

Either way, there are no excuses which is why Zakaria hasn’t made any.

 

Throw your mind back to almost two years ago when huge chunks of Aroon Purie’s publisher’s note in India Today was picked up from a column in Slate magazine. Purie apologised, but obviously, since he owned the magazine, nothing more could be done. Also, it turned out that he didn’t realise that the “research” sent to him by his employees (senior journalists though they may have been) was not written by them but by someone else.

 

The funny thing is that these are rookie lapses, which come from arrogance, laziness and carelessness. This is not the work of a scientist trying to get published in some respected journal or a PhD student trying to finish a thesis – not that cheating is justified – who thinks they have just one chance to make it. What are the stakes involved for a columnist who writes regularly? Your whole reputation is built on those daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly words you come up with. Imagine throwing it away in this sloppy manner?

 

Unfortunately for Zakaria, this puts all his work under the scanner. Trust is so ephemeral.

 

The odd thing is, one suspects this kind of plagiarism is possibly far more common than this. Stupidity is after all universal. Common sense is not.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. The views expressed here are her own. Twitter: @ranjona

 

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