Last week in the Mail&Guardian, Krisjan Lemmer reported that following the very public plagiarism furore, journalists at Sapa are starting to see bylines.
Says Lemmer: “Hacks at Sapa say those colleagues in the daily press who used to reproduce chunks of agency copy, and even whole stories, under their own bylines, appear to have turned over a new leaf.” (M&G October 10 to 16 2003)
I sincerely hope so, and I hope I had something to do with it.
In fact I take this whole episode quite personally. But let me backtrack.
During the July vacation we turf our students out into the world to get work experience in newsrooms around the country. Some of them do it reluctantly but others take it dead seriously, as did Rob Boffard who went to work for the Saturday Star.
The next I heard, Boffard was on the trail of Darrel Bristow-Bovey and was comparing chunks of Bill Bryson to very similar chunks recently written by Bristow-Bovey. Knowing that plagiarism is a big issue – in that it’s talked about all the time – in academic environments, Boffard phoned me for a comment for his story.
So I said something about how the debates are going on campuses (before you whack a student on the head for what you think is flagrant copying, check first that the student knows how to reference and source properly – which in academic texts is a complex thing to master).
And then following that train of thought I began to wonder aloud about all those practices in newsrooms not considered plagiarism by journalists: like taking Sapa copy and slapping on the byline of the reporter who couldn’t get enough material to write his own story; like all that PR and business copy that appears in the news word for word and also carries the byline of the reporter who didn’t write it.
Interesting. If plagiarism is “using another’s words without credit”, these qualify.
So I told Rob Boffard: “this is not unusual (as a practice in newsrooms)” and that’s how I appeared in public in his story. One-liner, no explanation.
The fall-out was immediate. A friend from Joburg phoned to check I hadn’t lost my moral compass. Wits journalism students phoned me for comment thinking they had found one of those marvellous mavericks who’ll say oppositional things just for the hell of it, a parent phoned my HoD to say she didn’t think Rhodes was the place she wanted her child educated, and Dave Bullard hoped aloud in his Sunday Times column that I’d been “misquoted”.
Well I wasn’t really. I was partially quoted. So I tracked down Boffard and asked him what the hell had happened to my entire thought. “Oh, the subs thought it was too wordy so they jazzed it up,” he said.
And altered the meaning and made me look soft in the head in public.
And put me on the trail of those other invisible wordsmiths who should come out from the dark and be named: the subs.
Now this is territory I know well, having worked underground in newspapers for an immensely long period of time. And it has two dimensions: subs can destroy stories and subs can make stories (and their reporters) sing.
(I spent years cleaning up the copy of particularly garrulous column writer only to see him poached for a fancy job somewhere else because of his writing. Said a cynical colleague, “they need to hire you too to continue making him look good in public.”)
And on both counts shouldn’t they be made visible? If they’re that good at rewriting disparate bits into fluid and readable stories they should get the prizes and not the frontline journalists. And if they’re the dangerous ones who should be blamed for bias and sensationalism, shouldn’t their names appear?
In fact, every headline should have a byline. Journalists get into hot water more over the tone of headlines than they do over actual stories.
And so back to me. I’m unrepentant about my stance on plagiarism in newsrooms. I don’t think it’s fair to hammer certain people for the gross manifestations of it and to let all the other practices continue to just happen.
And that’s what I told David O’Sullivan on 702, and if Sapa journalists are starting to get bylines, I’m really pleased about it. Now start naming those subs, I want to see the whites of their eyes.