Plagiarism and the Prime Minister

    The revelations about the Prime Minister's speechwriter and plagiarism this week come at a time of the academic year when I have been teaching and discussing this very issue with my students in the journalism programs at Centennial College and the University of Toronto.
    Every fall, for the past few years, I have been delivering a seminar/workshop on this: sort of like a "How Not to Dress" show, except instead of fashion tips and faux pas, I try to show students what plagiarism looks like, and how to avoid it, even accidentally.
  Why did this seminar get started? 
  Because several years ago, while correcting student stories, I came across too many quotes or paragraphs that had been "borrowed" or "lifted" from the Internet, from pamphlets handed out at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, or even taken verbatim from other students' without their knowledge. 
  So now I teach tips and suggestions on how to make sure all their stories are written properly, by themselves, and that any research or background materiel which they didn't get by their own devices, is properly attributed according to the rules acceptable in the news industry. 
  At the same time, my colleagues and I helped revamp Centennial College's Academic Honesty and Plagiarism policy for the Journalism Program, which is now in effect in January 2008. Click here to see them.
  We also drew up a pledge sheet, based on an idea submitted to the Ontario Journalism Educators group, which we ask our students who take the workshop to sign, committing them to truth telling and honesty in their journalism both at school, and out in the real world when they graduate.
  The idea also came from something similar being done at Columbia Journalism School. 
  The bottom line in my seminars is this: journalists have to work hard to maintain the public trust that has been developed with readers/ viewers over the years, and the only way I know to do this is to be truthful and transparent in their storytelling and reporting. And besides, I say, plagiarizing -- can get you fired. Either directly -- if you are caught, or indirectly, because you didn't learn the skills in journalism school to help you be a truthful journalist.
  Then Obama did it. 
  He was accused of plagiarizing part of a campaign speech
  Then his vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, did it.
  His own troubles with plagiarism were resurrected including a 1988 presidential bid which was scuttled because of it, and there are allegations of plagiarism while at Law School.
  And now the Liberals are accusing Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper of cribbing parts of a speech five years ago from Australian Prime Minister Howard's address. 
  His speechwriter's been fired.
  But checking the comments and blogs so far on my colleague Susan Ormiston's story on and elsewhere, I see there doesn't seem to be much outrage about any of the three cases: most folks say "No big deal." 
  So what message does this send to my journalism students? That it's OK to cheat because if Obama and Biden and Madonna, and Harper can do it, and there are no consequences, why can't we?
  Tough question.
  Here's my take. 
  It reminds me of what I said to my mother when I was in Grade 9 and someone in my school recopied and submitted her friend's older sister's essay (done three years earlier) and got an A-, while I slaved for three weeks in the school library pouring through encyclopedias (No we didn't have Internet in the 70s) and my essay got a B-. 
 At the time, I thought "Cheaters always win". 
 My mom said "She won't learn anything."
 I thought "This is not helpful." 
 Especially because all the cool boys liked her!
 Now I know Mom was partially right. 
 And it applies to Obama, and Biden, and Harper, too.
 While I acknowledge that no one is actually hurt in the physical sense when someone like Obama or Harper's speechwriters steal words without proper attribution, what does get hurt is the trust. That girl in Grade 9 became a lawyer. Would I hire her? Probably not.
 Why? Because I could never trust her again.
 What else are they stealing? What else are they not thinking up themselves?
 It's the same for politicians.
 While I accept that they are all too busy to write all their speeches themselves, plagiarism does erode trust. Even if it is accidental. 
 So if they are going to borrow something they admire for a speech, or adopt someone else's policy, coming clean and attributing it, is the best way. It won't cost them votes. Politicians can't be experts on everything. 
  Same with journalists. We aren't experts on everything. We can't be. The public knows that. But we know where to look and who to ask, and we let readers/viewers hear directly from the experts, without passing the cure for cancer or the latest discovery about Mars off as something we ourselves dreamed up on their own. Trust is everything.

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