Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Source sans attribution,
attribution sans source

Our household has been hit with an improbable double whammy.

The first whammy: some years ago, my university’s student newspaper published a column about how to e-mail professors. The column was the work of a former student and borrowed without attribution from my post How to e-mail a professor. The column began with links to my post and to a couple of other items online. The column went on to present what purported to be the writer’s own considered advice, with three passages following, very closely, the phrasing of three passages in my post, with no indication of a source. The student writer thought I’d be happy to see his effort. Yikes.

I explained to the student and to the newspaper’s advisors in the journalism department why this column was a problem. I cited the responses of colleagues and friends who had read the student’s column. I quoted statements about plagiarism and paraphrase and attribution from the websites of prestigious college-journalism programs. As Schlitzie would say, “Y’see? Y’see?” I was told in response that one can’t copyright ideas. There’s no arguing with Messrs. Dunning and Kruger.

The second whammy: last week, the university’s student newspaper has published a review of Elaine’s recent recital. One problem: the writer included comments from imaginary audience members. A second problem: the writer included comments purported to be from Elaine (identified as a former English professor), about the difficulty of being a woman in “the music industry.” (“The music industry”! Lordy.) A third problem: the writer did not attend the recital. Why try to build a résumé with such inane fabulation? It’s beyond me.

To its credit, the paper has removed the review from its website. The paper gets just one or two points partial credit for issuing (in print only) an oddly worded correction. The correction does not acknowledge that the audience members were imaginary, that Elaine never spoke to the writer, and that the writer did not attend the recital. The correction says instead that the names of the audience members quoted cannot be verified and that Elaine says that she did not say the words attributed to her. Thus the paper leaves the truth of the article in the eye of the beholder.

The first whammy was a matter of source sans attribution. The second, attribution sans source. Each absurd. Together, absurder.

comments: 5

Elaine said...

Some years back, I sent a Letter to the Editor of the local paper (Chagrin Valley Times) and in a subsequent issue a reporter wrote an article about the topic in which he "quoted" me, making it sound like he had interviewed me.....which brought on another letter, of course. Sheesh, inded....

Slywy said...

If the student plagiarized Harry Potter ("Henry Cotter"?), I suspect s/he and the student paper would find out quickly and painfully you can copyright ideas.

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, it sounds like your local paper knows my local paper.

Diane, I think it’s not possible to copyright an idea, though I’m not sure how that plays out in practice.

I didn’t even try to explain to the powers that be (or that were) that copyright had nothing to do with my objection to what my student did.

Sean Crawford said...

At my student newspaper journalistic ethics were a given. We learned from each other and from our editors, within days of joining the other volunteers.

Also we had yearly regional and national student university press conferences where students would often bring free copies of their newspapers. The conferences, besides vote-meetings, were mostly for educational seminars taught by students to students.

We also mailed copies of our papers to each other, thus providing another incentive for ethics.

What you report astounds me. No wonder social media is so unethical. For some people, ethics are not common sense.

Next time that happens, inform other campus papers: I sure there would be a story there.

Michael Leddy said...

Those conferences continue. There’ll always be bad eggs, as The New York Times and New Republic learned. I’m hoping that for my household, there won’t be a next time. I will be watching for further work by the student who “reviewed” the concert.