NOTU! Media Culpa vs Academia Culpa

In many of her Globe and Mail columns, Margaret Wente challenges academic orthodoxy, so when a blogger who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa blogged about Wente being a plagiarist, I immediately suspected academic sensitivities played a role.  As I’ve thought more about this over the past few days (I found out about the case only on Sunday, reading Maclean’s online, after wondering why I couldn’t find Wente’s column in my Saturday Globe and Mail), I’ve concluded that academic sensitivities probably did play a role, and not just in the simple way of an academic wanting revenge, which I at first assumed.

Academics generally have a very harsh view towards plagiarism when it occurs within their profession, and rightly so, given the nature of their profession.  Academics are rewarded mainly for their research work, which presumably entails creating new knowledge.  If an academic borrows liberally from another academic’s work without giving adequate credit, this amounts to an act of theft, that can seriously hurt the career of the originator of the “new knowledge”.  In what is currently their secondary role, teaching and evaluating students, for there to be any fairness in the evaluation system, plagiarism by students has to be taboo.

Although Carol Wainio has pointed out in her blog, Media Culpa, some very interesting efficiencies used by Wente when she writes her columns (particularly one column that Wainio painstakingly dissects and in which, I agree, Wente took these efficiencies too far), I believe it was wrong for Wainio to have applied to the work of a journalist who was writing three opinion pieces each week in a newspaper what would seem to be the same standards that she would apply to academics, or to her university students.  Anyone who has read Wente’s columns knows she knows how to write–and doesn’t need to repeat English 101.  Also, Wente wasn’t creating new knowledge, or even professing to do so, but only stating her opinion about an existing state of affairs, about which other journalists previously had written.

We still need plagiarism laws in journalism to protect both writers and the publications in which they publish their work.  (According to a detailed entry on Wikipedia about the history of plagiarism, the modern ideals for originality and against plagiarism appeared only in the 18th century, and seem to have been related to the economics of the book trade.)  However, as Jesse Brown suggested in his very interesting piece in Maclean’s, “Margaret Wente, remix artist?“, maybe we need to change the standards for journalism somewhat in the current digital age, when we have access to information from so many different sources, and when opinions tend to be formed through a “cut-and-paste” process.

Frankly, I find Wente’s apparent fabrication of an attendee at a political event, presented in her column as an actual person, which Wainio also uncovered, far more unsettling than Wente’s use of a couple of sentences written by another journalist without ‘proper’ attribution.  I hope it was a simple mistake, that resulted from Wente having to work too quickly and, in this age of major cutbacks at newspapers, not having adequate editorial support at the Globe and Mail.

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