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Parasite journalism: is aggregation as bad as plagiarism?

When a writer lifts thoughts - or even paragraphs - from an existing work, we call it plagiarism. But news organisations do the same, and call it aggregation.

A newspaper on the printing press.
The speed at which journalists are now required to provide copy has taken its toll. Photo: Getty

Oh dear. The Observer's chief political correspondent, Andrew Rawnsley, has been accused by Paul Staines of writing a piece that looks worryingly similar to something that ran in the Economist.

Of course, Rawnsley is not the first journalist to be accused of passing of other people's work as his own (at the time of publication, he has not responded to Staines's allegations). Older people who I talk to in the industry say it's a very rare thing to happen - and when it does, it's usually an exhausted young graduate trainee who doesn't know any better. In my opinion, it happens all the time, it's just that people don't get caught very often. Johann Hari is the classic example - the only absolutely rock solid piece of plagiarism that could be pinned on him was a piece from a German newspaper article that he'd translated.

That gets to the heart of why people aren't caught. The internet is a big place - most of the time, if you steal a clever blog post written in another country and publish it in a UK newspaper, no one is any the wiser. It's not just the stressed out kids doing it either. In 2011, a Pulitzer prize winner was caught stealing at the Washington Post

It's probably always happened - but the internet has made it easier to find, and quicker to do. "Quicker" gets to the heart of the issue. Quite a few are resorting to the Ctrl-V and Ctrl-C option when time is short, and there's always a fine line between "inspired by" and "lifted from".

It used be the case that the hardest work you could do if you were a journalist was to turn in seven to ten articles a week, and that was only if you were writing on a daily paper. Magazine writers had the time to write big, expansive features, full of proper research and interviews. Now, many full-time journalists in print, broadcasting and online are being asked to blog, tweet, podcast and produce or edit 10-20 articles a week. In short, do two or three people's jobs. No wonder some are getting desperate. 

Of course, you still get some great journalism under this system. For example, perhaps the best meditation on Andy Murray's Wimbledon win was written by Ally Fogg in the Guardian. He wrote movingly of the way in which Andy Murray's win had given the town of Dunblane a reason to be memorable other than its ghastly 1996 school massacre. As soon as I read it, I thought, "That's a brilliant take on a difficult subject, totally different from anything I'd have been able to write".

Unfortunately, lots of people didn't read it in the Guardian - a lot read it in the Washington Post. Whole chunks of Fogg's article - indeed, whole paragraphs, as well as the argument, thrust and premise of it, and the supporting quotes - were repeated wholesale on the American newspaper's website. While Fogg was credited, and his own original piece was linked to, as he said: "Y'know there's a fine line between 'thank you for crediting my work' and 'here's my invoice'." 

I have to ask the question, in a word where journalism is a commodity, is stealing essentially the whole premise of an article, and then providing a link that very few people will click on, any different from what Rawnsley is accused of doing? Copying and pasting Ally Fogg's Dunblane piece, then topping and tailing it, probably saved that Washington Post writer a good couple of hours. Easier than working for a living.

It's not just American behemoths that are doing it either. British papers are doing it all the time too. Recently, I spoke to freelancer David Robinson, who had just had a feature printed in the Daily Express - about Nazi plans to bomb New York. Hours later, it was up on the Daily Mail website. Again, it linked back to Robinson's article - but it used his whole idea, and lifted the quotes he'd obtained, and the story he'd researched. As Robinson said to me: "As a freelancer I’m really only as good as my ideas. What rights do I have? It’s very dispiriting."

This kind of aggregation is legal, if frustrating for hard-working writers like Robinson and Fogg. Pieces are linked to, original authors are mentioned, but you have to ask what that's really worth. Of course, the content aggregation thing has been around as long as wire copy - most papers most days will have some of that, usually covering it as "by staff writer". (I know of one paper which has a fictional writer to whom it attributes wire stories - Mr "Harry Banks" - note the spike in his work rate in August.) What's different is the aggregation stuff is getting bigger, and people are using less wire copy, and more stuff other media outlets that have put out. It has the advantage over wire copy of being free. 

In my opinion, some of this stuff is just as bad as plagiarism. Aggregators are parasites, only slightly more benign than plagiarists - and sooner or later, parasites kill the host. Someone has to actually create words for other people to steal. It's just that actually paying for people to be creative is expensive. We'd better work out a way for journalistic creativity to pay - or we're going to have a much worse media in a very short time.

Tags:media