When we copy the words or ideas we found on someone’s Web site and fail to acknowledge the source, it’s called plagiarism.
Starting in about the 10th grade, Florida language-arts teachers school students in two important writing skills. The first is paraphrasing, that is, expressing ideas we read about in our own words. The second is citing the source of the ideas we paraphrase.
Ethical journalists and editors practice these skills on a daily basis. Either they use quotation marks, quote someone word for word and append a little tag at the end along the lines of “Smith said” or “according to a press release from Senator Windbag’s office,” or some such. Or, they skip the quotation marks and put the news into their own words – paraphrasing that’s usually shorter, clearer and less ambiguous than the original (although there are numerous exceptions to this ideal).
Even when the information is paraphrased, ethical journalists and conscientious reporters still say “Jones said,” and “according to police reports.” They cite their sources.
Somewhat complicating this clear edict are publicity departments that want to help an organization get out the word about worthy activities. Generally, PR folks are happy to have local organizers use prepared material. They love to see their upbeat words folded into locally produced news stories and notices.
What the locals don’t get is that the standards of journalism, fairness, and Miss Crabtree’s 10th grade language arts class still require an acknowledgement of those PR sources. To do otherwise is to lie about who wrote the material – and to hide from the reader important information about the possible motives of the information provider.
As it happens, there’s a perfect example of this lie in the morning DeSoto Sun. Cherie A. Hollingsworth, the DeSoto County 4-H extension program assistant, has placed her byline on top of a news item about a public speaking contest for club members. She did a yeoman’s job of getting in all the local names of the contestants, judges, and topics.
But she blew it with the three paragraphs she tacked onto to her locally assembled copy:
Hollingsworth claims that she wrote: Florida 4-H is proud to offer the annual 4-H Tropicana public speaking contest. Working with youth in grades four to six, this contest helps thousands of young people annually learn how to write and deliver a speech. More than 150,000 young people in more than 50 Florida counties at this grade-level have participated.
Tropicana has sponsored the contest since 1969 and provides classroom materials for teachers, certificates of participation, medallions for school winners, trophies for county winners, summer camp scholarships and Tropicana orange-juice refreshments for county contests. Close to 2 million students have participated in this program since its beginning.
Tropicana Products, a division of PepsiCo Inc., is the leading producer and marketer of branded fruit juices.
In fact, Hollingsworth copied “boilerplate paragraphs,” so called because they are standardized wording repeated without changing a comma in scores of prepared news releases. Hollingsworth probably found the copy at the “news and information page” of the Florida 4-H Web site describing the contest. Here's the Web site version:
Florida 4-H is very proud of the 4-H/Tropicana Public Speaking Contest. Working with youth in grades 4-6, this contest helps thousands of young people annually learn how to write and deliver a speech. More than 150,000 young people in over 50 Florida counties in grades 4-6 participated in the contest last year
Tropicana has sponsored the contest since 1969 and provides classroom materials for teachers, certificates of participation, medallions for school winners, trophies for county winners, summer camp scholarships and Tropicana orange juice refreshments for county contests. Close to 2 million students have participated in this program since its beginning.
Tropicana Products, Inc., a division of PepsiCo, Inc., is the leading producer and marketer of branded fruit juices.
Notice the little advertisement, for PepsiCo?
Hollingsworth is not a trained journalist and is probably oblivious to the long, slanted shadow the line casts over the whole effort. A professional reporter would have paraphrased the information in all three paragraphs and clearly attributed the information (cited the source), ending on a note something along the lines of “Pepsi Co. is the parent company of Tropicana Products, which provided classroom materials and prizes for the contest as a publicity effort in 50 Florida counties.”
A real newspaper editor or publisher concerned with his or her newspaper’s reputation for objectivity would never have allowed the PR department's copy to leave the desk.
Hollingsworth played right into the hands of the corporate PR machine – and she plagiarized to win the honor.