Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sun Correspondent Plagiarizes Aviation Museum Web Page

It's just one sentence in Sun Correspondent Mel Jackson's story this morning about aviation pioneer Patricia Hange. But it's plagiarism, nonetheless. And the 50-bucks-a-pop scribe with no visible journalism skills probably just doesn't understand. Well, Mel, here's the lesson: When writers quote a Web site, the ethical ones acknowledge the source with punctuation (called quotation marks) and attribution ("said," or "according to," or similar). To do less is plagiarism. Here is is:

The museum is dedicated to the preservation of the history of women in aviation and space and the documentation of their continuing contributions today and in the future.

Why did this plagiarized sentence jump out at Old Word Wolf? The rest of the writing is riddled with so many syntactical problems, misplaced modifiers and failures to report that, by comparison, this vanilla smooth, compressed compound-complex sentence seems to have fallen like manna from writer heaven. After falling from the sky -- err, the museum's Web site -- it sat lifeless and nearly irrelevant in the middle of a paragraph about the local celebrity's achievements. It didn't fit or flow; it didn't read or report. It revealed nothing about Mel Jackson's story except that he couldn't write it himself.

Back in the old days, a real copy editor would have bounced Mel's story in a minute. Instead, it has been published, forever a testimonial to what journalism without editors looks like.

At the top of this post, OWW accused Mel Jackson of sloppy writing and a poor grasp of American syntax. Here’s the evidence, commencing in the first sentence: "To fly as an eagle has been mankind’s dream for centuries."

Using the wrong preposition (fly AS an eagle) is a classic case of schoolmarm editing that changes the meaning of an old cliché. Casting the time as the present imperfect tense makes the sentence’s action silly.

Second sentence: The subject of the story and our heroine is “a glide port owner and operator.” General readers can’t be expected to know what a glide port is or what it means to operate one. And, the “sun Correspondent” never corresponds on this point. A “glide port,” more widely called “glider port,” is essentially an airport that caters to engineless aircraft. A good reporter would treat the word as colorful slang (the word is not in Merriam-Webster’s or Webster’s New World, both standard journalist’s references, or in any of several on-line aviation encyclopedias; OWW derived her understanding from perusing up-scale hotel brochures that offer aviation recreation.)

The aviatrix is also a sailplane builder, readers are told. Again, a brief reference to “glider” would be reader friendly.

In the third paragraph, the correspondent reports her friends include “Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964.” This sentence is a classic case of sexism in writing: A woman achieves a milestone and she’s called by a diminutive – and diminishing -- nickname. The woman’s name is Geraldine Fredritz Mock, and it would be an honor and a salute to provide that level of respect before moving on to a second, familiar reference.

The writer's grammar garbles history. He reports Mock was “the first woman to solo around the world in 1964.” The misplaced modifier forces the sentence to imply there was a first in 1963 or 1965, as well. The misplaced modifier reappears in the next sentence. Jean Hixson wasn’t the second woman to break the sound barrier in 1957; in 1957, she became the second woman to break the sound barrier. A writer who misses these basics in sentence clarity and syntactical coherence needs an editor, not a $50 paycheck.

The correspondent needs to develop the skills of inquiry. He reports “for her achievements in the sailplane industry, Hange was inducted into the National Soaring Hall of Fame...” It would be nice to know what those achievements are: so far she is described as knowing other women who pioneered in aviation, and flying to South America on missionary work. Readers know there’s more to it than that, but this reporter seems too shy to ask for these details. "Why" is the juciest of the journalist's five W's, but in Jackson's hands, it's all but ignored.

The reporter dutifully reports Hange has received a "Charles E. Taylor Maintenance Award," for 50 years in aviation. But Jackson shares not one word with readers about who, what, when, where, or why. (Taylor built the engine for the plane the Wright Brothers flew; readers are left in the dark about which of the five or six insitutitions that honor Taylor sponsors the award or when it was given to the local woman.)

Much of the story seems to be buried deep in the jump where eye-witnesses to Hange's achievements are all listed. One is even interviewed. What a grabber this story could have been with editing, revision, and restructuring.

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