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Knight Center


Lehrer, Zakaria plagiarism scandals in U.S. re-open debate on attribution of sources, quotes

“A serious lapse.” That is how author and CNN television host Fareed Zakaria described the decision to lift a paragraph from the New Yorker magazine for his column in Time magazine, according to the Huffington Post. The Washington Post used the same phrase, “serious lapse,” in an October 2011 apology after one of its journalists used “substantial” amounts of information from an Arizona Republic newspaper article on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting without attribution.

The last year has seen several big names in U.S. journalism face accusations of plagiarism, including most recently Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer, erstwhile staff writer for the New Yorker. Both cases show the ease of plagiarism in the cut-paste world of online media but also revive older debates over journalistic ethics, regardless of the medium.

Lehrer’s fall from grace is perhaps the most cut and dry of the recent plagiarism scandals. The popular science writer started defending himself from accusations of self-plagiarism in June 2012, after he was found borrowing paragraphs he wrote for previous publications. Soon after, Michael Moynihan of Tablet magazine uncovered that Lehrer fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his best-selling book, Imagine.

The fallout forced Lehrer to resign from the New Yorker and Imagine’s publisher to pull copies of the book from store shelves, according to New York Magazine. As of Aug. 15, Lehrer has so far kept his post as a contributing editor with Wired, but the magazine is still considering whether or not to continue publishing work from the disgraced writer, according to the publication.

Fabricating sources and quotes is roundly criticized as unethical, but the treatment of attribution of sources and quotes, especially online, is debated. Take Zakaria’s case. The host of CNN's Global Public Square was caught with several paragraphs with “close similarities” to Jill Lepore’s article in the April 23 issue of the New Yorker. According to the Atlantic Wire, Zakaria admitted lifting the sections and released a statement saying, "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 to my readers."

Both CNN and Time suspended Zakaria for his indiscretion. Time originally stated it would suspend Zakaria for a month but promptly re-instated him after only a week, said the Maynard Institute. The decision and another accusation of plagiarism from the Washington Post set off a firestorm in the blogosphere.

Several media commentators came to Zakaria’s defense. Edward Jay Epstein wrote that Zakaria did not commit plagiarism because he still attributed the original source, even if he did not credit Lepore for her writing, according to Politico. David Frum also defended Zakaria in his column, underplaying the misuse of Lepore’s words, musing whether or not the reporter doing the interviewing needs to be named if the original source is still mentioned.

David Zurawik of the Balitmore Sun disagreed, writing in a blog post, “It's not an ‘interesting’ or ‘more delicate’ question, as Frum says. It's as clear as rule as there ever was in journalism: You do not appropriate the work of another without crediting it. Period.”

Vanessa Horwell took it a step further, blogging, “Month-long suspensions and disciplinary review don’t cut it. If addressing legal and ethical issues are as central to the communications industry we all give lip service to, then the penalties for trampling on those lessons should be equally severe.”

Lehrer and Zakaria were only two of the many accused of plagiarism during the last year. In October 2011, a Politico reporter resigned after plagiarizing previously published articles from the New York Times and other newspapers. Scandal over attribution ended seminal media blogger Jim Romenesko’s tenure at Poynter in November 2011 when concern was expressed over his pattern of “imperfect attribution.” In June 2012, the New Canaan News in Connecticut fired reporter Paresh Jha for fabricating sources and quotes for at least 25 stories.

It all comes down to execution,” David Carr wrote in a recent column for the New York Times, “If I attribute the reporting of others and manage to steer clear of proprietary intellectual property while making a cogent argument, then I can live to write another day.”


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