Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The one sketchy thing about BuzzFeed that would shame a politician. Or at least might.

BuzzFeed serves a pop-culture diet heavy on listicles, but light on originality.

Let's get serious about plagiarism, starting with 7 Miracle Babies To Warm Your Heart Today.

It's an array of neonatal success stories from BuzzFeed, and the first in a list of 41 posts that got writer Benny Johnson fired. Sure, the roundup seems derivative, citing four photo agencies, three TV websites, two newspaper websites, a parenting blog, a hospital and a web link that goes nowhere.

But being derivative's not such a problem on BuzzFeed. The pop-culture website constantly mines the web for 26 Pregnancy Announcement Photos That Must Be Stopped and 11 Dogs Who Learned The Hard Way Not To Eat Bees. Mostly they're just pages crammed with photos and videos from elsewhere, but who can resist a list of 25 things about something? Not me.

The issue with the intensive-care listicle isn't all the secondary sources, just one: It mirrors a photo flipbook on the website Baby Said What. The "corrected" BuzzFeed post removes text lifted from the blog, and an editor's note admits "the structure of the list was also copied." Sure enough, they share the same photos, in the same order, and with the same unanswered questions. (Who's Baby Andrei and when was he born?) It's a ripped-off ripoff.

Legally, the posts share the dimly lit back alley of fair use. They borrow photos freely, credit sketchily and make it hard to track back sources. But BuzzFeed crosses a bright legal line in copying text. So it's skinned back "sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites." The photos and their fig-leaf source credits are still in place.

Ethically, it's a cut-and-dried transgression. Yet keeping it online treats it as a cut-and-paste error. Why withdraw just the words? I'd keep the apology, scrap the photos and link to the baby blog's full serving of strained, pureed news.

Plagiarism has no gray area. Or does it? The Society of Professional Journalists makes a clear statement: Never plagiarize. Still, its position paper lacks a clear definition. So let's adopt the Merriam-Webster description, "to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own." (The full definition includes a vivid metaphor, "literary theft.")

It's a fair description, underlined by a sticky issue: It's much easier to spot stolen words than cribbed concepts. Johnson's anonymous critics provide many examples and a few snarky asides about his politics. One copied source is a political press release — words for the taking but not for theft. At a public relations firm a co-worker of mine saw part of her release in the paper verbatim under a reporter's byline. The coverage was great, the reporter was sleazy.

Plagiarism requires no named accuser, victim or viewpoint. College students learn about it when they're warned against paying someone to write term papers. Buying text is verboten on campus. Buying ideas might be a definition of the college experience, except that an education's wasted if those ideas aren't internalized. So Cliff's Notes haven't been driven from the university bookstore. Study guides are appropriate if they drive actual study.

For another current example of literary theft, I followed the thieves and searched Google. There I found The New York Times report that Sen. John Walsh, the Montana Democrat appointed to fill Max Baucus' seat, appears to have lifted large portions of his Army War College thesis from online sources.

Military honor and journalism ethics both shun plagiarism. In politics, it's fodder for scandal, as Joe Biden learned when he imported rhetorical flourishes from Labour politician Neil Kinnock. Johnson (whose BuzzFeed specialty was "viral politics") admitted his failure with an apology on Twitter.

Walsh on the other hand defends his scholarship. He tells the Times he did not believe he had done anything wrong. Yet the Times says a third of his thesis is similar to other sources but unattributed, and another third is footnoted without paraphrase. The War College handbook warns against both types of academic fraud.

The BuzzFeed and War College cases both suggest the dangers facing web researchers who let down their guard. Inadvertent or intentional theft is a risk for anyone who copies text into a document. Writers fall into a more subtle subversion when they follow the same outlines, chase the same angles, or settle for secondhand sources.

Steve Jobs used to say "Good artists copy; great artists steal." Garson O'Toole's sleuthing on his Quote Investigator site couldn't back up Jobs in tracing that saying to Pablo Picasso. But O'Toole says the aphorism inverts a distinction first drawn by 19th century critic William Henry Davenport Adams. He wrote that "great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil." Writers need to return to the original sense of artistry.

Beyond being generous in attribution, they must build on their influences and move the story forward. The best way to feed the buzz is with a fresh perspective.

But wait, there's more! The New York Times revised a lede on Italian Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo that drew without attribution from a Wikipedia entry. The Times says editors "have dealt with" reviewer Carol Vogel. I blog about it at Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.