Plagiarism and Media: Strange Bedfellows or Necessary Partners

14/08/2012 09:51 BST | Updated 13/10/2012 10:12 BST

What's the hot news in town apart from Mitt Romney picking his running mate? It is of course the latest plagiarism scandal involving no less than the celebrated liberal media columnist, Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria, who is the editor at large for Time Magazine and host of a popular newsy talk show on the partner site, CNN, was found to have lifted an entire paragraph of material from another journalist without citing it or attributing it. Indeed, an otherwise slow news weekend was shaken up by this scandal with the high profile columnist being suspended indefinitely by Time and his talk show pulled off air. What was more shocking was that Zakaria in recent months has been known to take on powerful lobbies in the US including the gun lobby and hence, it is a matter of principle that he ought to have been more careful.

It is worth examining the whole issue of plagiarism especially as it relates to the journalistic profession. It has been long known that journalists do indulge in copying and lifting the work of others and only when they are caught in the act, do they even acknowledge the fact. The past decade or so saw many high profile plagiarism scandals with India's best selling weekly India Today caught in a row where none other than its chief editor and a celebrity in his own right was found to have lifted an entire article from another source. Though the person in question, Arun Poorie attributed it to a case of jet lag, it was quite evident that nobody took the explanation at face value. This goes on to show now even highly rated journalists do succumb to the temptation of using another person's work without citing and attributing the sources.

Moreover, with the advent of the internet, plagiarism as well as being caught has become easier. Though this might sound paradoxical, the point here is that with the proliferation of blogs and news sites by the millions on the internet, the temptation to lift stuff has overridden many a conscientious soul. On the other hand, it is easy to get caught as well as anyone with access to a standard plagiarism checker like Copyscape can easily verify if the article in question is lifted partly or fully. Indeed, the latest instance that is being discussed here was brought to light because of the diligence of a right wing advocacy website, that is dedicated to the exposure of liberal bias in the media. This goes on to show the level of surveillance that is prevalent on the journalists work and is in fact another reason why journalist ought to be careful.

With the advent of social media and the linking of articles, any worthy news item goes viral in a matter of hours and even minutes in some cases which means that the sheer pace at which news and opinions are generated increases the pressure on journalists to produce copy by the reams. However, this is not a license to lift the work of others and with so many watchers keeping track, scandals like that of Zakaria are bound to occur with increasing frequency. The lesson for other journalists is clear: you can't get away with plagiarism in the era of Facebook and Twitter nor can you escape the clutches of the frenetic 24/7 news cycle. This means that journalists are indeed in a bind, and only those with adequate nimbleness and depth of thought can hope to survive the scrutiny.

Occasional Plagiarism might be tolerated with a frown and a wrist slap only when the reputation of the media houses is not tied closely to that of the journalists' transgression. In this case and in the case involving Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, one can see a pattern where marquee names in the media space take a major hit to their brand image and reputation and hence they just cannot afford to play loose with these issues. Further, when high profile columnists like Zakaria and celebrity anchors like Rebecca Brooks (the disgraced journalist belonging to News Corp) indulge in unethical behavior, the media circus swings into high gear both from a glee that the big names have been humbled as well as to generate ad spends for themselves. And the public gets a chance to get back at the snooty ones who have always claimed to be the paragons of virtue on their talk shows.

Finally, unethical behavior in any profession ought to be condemned and especially so in the media since they are the custodians as well as watchdogs of public behavior. The fourth estate is one of the pillars of democracy and hence when its slips up, it is indeed a matter of concern. Given the rapid erosion of trust by the public in the other institutions, the media still remains a bastion where the people hope for conscientious and righteous behavior. And when the gods themselves fail as the case of Rupert Murdoch shows, the ground beneath is indeed shaky from the weight of the fallen gods. Hence, more than ever there is a need for serious introspection by the media as to whether they have sacrificed principles in the pursuit of profits. This is the need of the hour and power to those who still practice what they preach and have their hearts in the right places.