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Worth Reading: “Yellow Prose of Texas: Dueling Fracking Stories Raise Plagiarism Questions”

I’ve told you a dozen times that I intend to write a post about a phenomenon I refer to as “derivative journalism,” and I still intend to do so.

The problem is, every time I sit down to work on said post, yet another example of the varied forms derivative journalism takes pops up and distracts me. It’s a big subject and, sadly, one that’s becoming more common and more complex.

In the meantime, I want to share an article worth reading that addresses one facet of the phenomenon. “Yellow Prose of Texas: Dueling Fracking Stories Raise Plagiarism Questions” was published in the print issue of The New York Observer on March 3, 2014. Unfortunately, the version published online is not the complete article as it was published originally. In the print piece, journalist Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke details how a 10,000-word feature by Bryan Mealer, writing for Texas Monthly, was seemingly appropriated by a reporter for USA Today— by appropriated, I mean that the USA Today reporter sought the same primary source as Mealer in the same small Texas town, to tell, essentially, the same (albeit condensed) story.

Unless you’re a writer yourself, you may not realize how (increasingly) common this kind of appropriation is. It’s happened to me and it’s happened, more recently, to a colleague; both of us had gone to a hard-to-reach place and talked to a variety of disparate, far-flung sources about a topic that, at least in my case, was fairly specific and niche (scientific research on the military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba). It was clear that our work had been picked up by another person and “remixed” as their own original reporting. Sadly (and frustratingly), editors failed to catch the intellectual theft and, in my colleague’s case, at least, weren’t well-read enough to have even realized that the topic had been reported on–originally–by someone else in another publication (editorial myopia being a topic for a whole other post).

There are a number of points in Bloomgarden-Smoke’s article that are important and merit wider conversation, including these stand-outs:

-The initial exchange that occurred between Mealer and the USA Today writer took place on twitter. For me, at least, this raises the question: Was there an attempt to address the grievance before it was moved to a public forum? (If not, my opinion is: understandable frustration, but poor form).

-The initial exchange that occurred between the publications’ respective editors also took place on twitter. In my opinion, twitter doesn’t seem like the proper forum to address or correct these types of grievances, tempting as it is to sound off about them.

-A source Bloomgarden-Smoke quotes in her article says something that I think should be obvious, but clearly is not: “[T]he best policy is to be liberal with acknowledging previous reporting,” the journalist summarizes, citing the source by adding, “It doesn’t cost anything to be generous with credit.”

Finally, I think it’s worth reiterating an idea you’ve heard me hold forth about here on more than one occasion: Why can’t these writers find their own stories? Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, at least not in journalism. Whatever interested the USA Today writer about Mealer’s story could–no, should— have prompted him to take Mealer’s story further, to find an aspect of the story that hadn’t been told. Instead, it was apparently a rehash of Mealer’s original story, passed off as his own sui generis reporting. To me, this is the saddest form of writing: the kind that lacks any impetus originating in the writer’s own curiosity.

Have you had any personal experiences with this kind of derivative journalism? Do you consider it a form of plagiarism? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


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