I was robbed. or something.

In early December I wrote a freelance news story for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, a daily with online, provincial and metro editions.
The day after Herald publication, three other Nova Scotia dailies ran the story, with no byline and with minor changes to the lead and last paragraphs.
All three are owned by the same big communications gob, with no relationship to the Chronicle Herald. The Herald did not make the story available to other publications.
I was the only reporter at the event, where there was no press release or prepared statement. I interviewed a guy who described the situation in his own words, without referring to a script or notes. I quoted him.
Thus, no other reporter could have written exactly the same story I did, especially without being there.
The only conclusion: the story was copied without permission, without credit, and without recompense to the rightful owner.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but stealing someone else’s work is plain theft. I was a victim.
But was I, really? As a freelancer, I sold the story to the Herald, which then owned it, at least temporarily. So the Herald was the victim, and management was in high dudgeon. The offending publisher and managing editor apologized publicly, assuring the readers – apparently also the victims in the matter – that “action had been taken.”
(No one said exactly what that meant, but punishment for plagiarism may include suspension or job loss.)
In my experience, most readers don’t notice bylines and don’t care whether a story is plagiarized. They think writing is easy, anyone can regurgitate information, so what’s the fuss?
Meanwhile, no one apologized to me, so I guess I wasn’t a victim.
But I was offended, mostly by a comment in the published apology alluding to a journalistic culture that turns a blind eye to plagiarism.
Really? I haven’t seen it in a long, long time.
I would not copy someone’s work and pretend it was mine and I naively expect others to do the same.
On the other hand, I understand how a writer could inadvertently use words that belong to someone else, simply because they have become part of the language – like quotes from poets or politicians.
I have also been the reporter-come-lately to a story, when the people I interview tell me that another news-gathering medium got the story exactly right, so why don’t I just copy it?
In those situations I tell folks I’m not allowed to do that, and ask them to please tell me what they told the other reporter. They never tell it the same way twice, so I write a different story. Sometimes they read the other reporter’s story to me, or email it to me as their own news release – but it’s an obvious ploy. The remedy is to ask a few more questions, or interview a different person.
Reporters are supposed to re-write news releases in their own words, a practice that generally brings to light unanswered questions about the topic. When I ask the sender for clarification, I get brand-new quotes and updated information that makes it easier for me to re-tell the story.
I have also been in the position of working long hours for low pay, with someone hovering over me waiting for a story that there is absolutely no time to complete properly before deadline. Thankfully, I’ve not been in that position for many years; but the memory of my sense of failure and frustration lingers.
Unfortunately, most newsrooms are understaffed for a variety of reasons. Fewer people buy newspapers these days, so revenue is down. In order to pay reporters without cutting into the bottom line, newspapers hire fewer people and ask them to work longer hours.
As in every other business, quality suffers when costs are cut. There is less time spent on careful editing, on checking facts, or on ethical concerns like plagiarism. And instead of blaming management for demanding more from fewer people, the trend is to blame the foot soldiers, the people on the front line who are simply desperate to get an overwhelming job done.
Yes, there are lazy reporters who will get away with as much as possible. They are few. There are overbearing editors. They are few.
I don’t know if this case was one of desperation or laziness.
I know I don’t like it.
I refuse to be a victim.
Just don’t do it again.

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About monicagraham2012

Author, journalist, columnist
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