41 Shades of Gray

By Ray Schultz

Another hot shot writer is in trouble for alleged serial plagiarizing. Benny Johnson was fired by BuzzFeed last Friday after readers found “41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites,” as editor Ben Smith put it in a blog post, according to Mashable.

There’s no reason for gloating, although I suspect some grizzled reporters are doing just that. I can hear them asking if Johnson, BuzzFeed’s viral politics editor, ignored the ethical training given out in J-school.

But it’s the wrong question, given the nature of BuzzFeed and Johnson’s alleged offense. Maybe Johnson didn’t even go to J-school.

He seemed to specialize in what are now called “listicles” – trashy, specious lists, as in: “7 Signs That Your Dog Is Having an Affair.” Like the best content curators, he borrowed liberally from others, but without crediting his sources, Smith admitted.

Yikes. It’s bad enough to plagiarize renowned works of fiction or history. But listicles?

Yet “curation” apparently is the basis of BuzzFeed’s business model. Adrian Chen wrote on Gawker in 2012 that BuzzFeed has “built a lucrative business on organizing the internet’s confusing spectacle into listicles easily comprehended by even the most numbed office workers.” Chen added, though, that “many are highly derivative rip-offs from other sites, cleaned up and reproduced without crediting their sources.”

Has it changed since then? Maybe. “Go to BuzzFeed.com and click on any one of its lists. In very fine print, buried below each photo, there will be a link to another site — usually Reddit,” Dylan Byers sneers on politico.com.

Byers also offers this explanation for how Johnson went wrong:

“When BuzzFeed reporters wrote, they were subject to the same rules as everyone else. Sure you could draw facts from elsewhere — everyone does — but you had to write it in your own language.

“At some point, Johnson probably got lazy and started inserting text into his posts the same way he had been inserting photographs — by pressing Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. His mistake was that he forgot to put quote marks around it and add “according to.”

That seems right, although it’s all part of a viral content system designed for people with short attention spans.

And let’s not forget Johnson’s worst alleged offense:plagiarizing Wikipedia.

I used to joke that I’d fire any reporter who used Wikipedia as a source. There are too many small factual errors (and probably many big ones). It’s a slipshod practice.

But if you do sneak it in, at least have the courage to admit it. I’d hate to be the editor who had run an apology for ripping off Wikipedia.

Don’t think this is limited to listickle writers—book authors and academics also quote Wikipedia, which in fairness doesn’t purport to be a primary source. When did everyone get so lazy?

Here’s some free advice. If BuzzFeed is indeed focused on curation, it should source everything—it’s as simple as that. There’s nothing wrong with compiling a content sampler if you attribute pickups and include links.

For their part, writers should follow Robert Caro’s rule and source every single quote or paraphrase. Don’t worry if it bogs the copy down.

And Benny Johnson? One can guess that he enjoyed his moment in the sun. Or maybe he didn’t—it had to be stressful. Either way, what’s his future?

Fallen journalists rarely make it back—there are too few jobs even for good reporters. But that may be changing, along with other things in publishing. A clever person with a good business head could start his own site, or find another one to hire him. And like other nine-day wonders on the Internet, he may find that he is forgiven as long as he drives traffic and dollars. So much for ethics.

 

 

 

 

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