It happened again.
After school board honcho Chris Spence and staff reporter Madhavi Acharya Tom-Yew were both caught plagiarising a few weeks ago, the Toronto Star started using anti-cheating software called iThenticate, to help them with the problem.
But iThenticate doesn’t check things automatically for them. They have to run suspicious copy through it to check if it’s original or not.
So it was of no help yesterday, when Curtis Rush’s online story on the Pistorius affair went up with five paragraphs lifted directly from a reality show website.
Rush’s story, about Pistorius’ dead girlfriend, whom he’s accused of murdering, describes Reeva Steenkamp thus:
She was born in Cape Town and moved to Port Elizabeth as a child, where she continued her studies after matriculating, eventually graduating with a degree in law, her profile states.
She moved to Johannesburg six years ago after being scouted and was named the first face of cosmetics giant Avon South Africa.
Since then, she has appeared in some of South Africa’s most high-profile campaigns and commercials.
Among the prestigious clients she worked for are Toyota, FHM, Clover & Italian brand Zui.
Steenkamp had a passion for cars and cooking. On her off days, she preferred reading and spending quality time with friends and family, her profile said.
Her profile on the website for Tropika Island of Treasure 5, the reality show she was a part of, is:
Reeva was born in Cape Town and moved to Port Elizabeth as a child where she continued her studies after matriculating, eventually graduating with a degree in law.
She moved to JHB 6 years ago after being scouted and named the first face of cosmetics giant Avon South Africa. Since then, Reeva has travelled between JHB and Cape Town to film and shoot some of SA’s leading campaigns and commercials. Toyota, FHM, Clover & Italian brand Zui are some of the more prestigious clients she has worked for.
With a background in TV presenting, once the live roaming presenter for FashionTV in South Africa, Reeva is currently working on some major projects that include smaller TV roles as well as a lead in a new reality TV show.
Reeva has a passion for cars and cooking and prefers to read a book on her off days and spend quality time with friends and family.
“Her profile states” and “her profile said” don’t quite make up for the lack of quotation marks around what was lifted and only slightly altered from a single source.
By now, it should be obvious to people who have been following all the plagiarism news over the past several months that there should probably be two words instead of one to describe using someone else’s words without proper recognition or attribution. Plagiarism sounds too harsh a word for what Rush did here, but “sloppy” or “cut-and-paste journalism” let him, and Tom-Yew, and all the other journalists who, because of under-staffing, tight-deadlines, unreasonable managerial expectations, or simple laziness helicopter copy into their stories like this off the hook.
Let’s call it cutback journalism.
There are many things wrong with cutback journalism. It’s of course ethically wrong to use someone else’s words as your own, especially when you’re getting paid for your words. It erodes the trust of readers, who expect the journalists at their chosen media source to be giving them something that justifies their decision to continue going to that source for information. And it shaves down the already thinning distinction between traditional and new media.
As I’ve said before elsewhere, I may read quite a lot on TMZ and Buzzfeed and cracked.com and Daily Kos, but I don’t trust it. Were I to introduce anything I learned from any of those sources in conversation, I would preface it with some caveat or other, like “I’m not sure, I only read it on TMZ, but….” I have not been in the habit of doing that with the Star and the Globe. I have counted on their reporters, their editors, their managers, to do enough work for me so that that I be confident in my barstool asseverations. Because the problem isn’t just copying words from a reality TV website, it’s taking that realty TV website’s word for what they’ve written. If a reporter has put so little effort into the writing, I think it’s safe to assume he’s put little if any into fact-checking.
So did Steenkamp work for Avon South Africa? Did she have a passion for cars? Did she get a law degree? Maybe, but for now, I’ll have to check some other source than the Star to find out.
I sent Kathy English, the Star’s public editor, a note about Rush’s story before publishing mine. After investigating, the story (as linked above) has been amended, with the following correction appended:
“Correction: This article was edited from a previous version that included some biographical information that was not properly attributed to the South African reality TV series Tropika Island of Treasure Season 5.“
Her note to me read, in part:
“The writer of this article did in fact attribute the biographical information about Steenkamp to ‘her profile.’ He thought that that was sufficient attribution. I note he referred twice to ‘her profile.’
“Here’s what happened here: Another reporter who had been searching earlier for background information on the dead woman handed him that “profile” information in hard copy early yesterday when his shift began. He did not realize it had come from the website of the television show. He had her picture and the information in front of him and thought he was correct in attributing it to her profile.”
“Looking at this now, we think the attribution should be more specific in indicating that this profile information came from the TV show website.
“And looking further at how other news organizations handled this same information, I think quotation marks should have been used in cases where information was taken word-for-word from that profile.”