The buck has to stop with whoever owns the byline

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By Leo Valiquette

Quality writing, whether it is for journalistic, marketing or public relations purposes, is too often considered a commodity service. For those of us who have experience with the community newspaper business, where editorial content (to quote a colleague of mine) has often been viewed by publishers as “the shit that keeps the ads from bumping together,” this was painfully evident long before the advent of the Internet content mill.

The question is whether our present-day age of real-time, on-demand news and information is driving this to an extreme and leading many writers to, either accidentally or intentionally, break those tenets of ethical writing most often talked about in the context of journalism.

To be frank, some forms of content are a commodity and can be pumped out far more quickly than others. Nor are all writers created equal. I have worked with no shortage of wordsmiths who, despite the fact that this is their profession, still agonize for hours to produce something on a deadline that will still read much better if they are granted a second crack at it the next day.

Nonetheless, quality writing by anyone takes time, effort, focus and sober second thought to produce. And by quality I don’t mean just proper spelling and good grammar. I mean content that distills analytical thought, thorough research, penetrating interviews and confident creativity into something fresh and new that both conveys and deepens understanding of the subject matter.

Mark Twain is famously quoted, perhaps misquoted, for once apologizing for writing a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. But it’s what he said in a letter in 1881 to a young Canadian writer named Bruce Weston Munro that sticks with me. Munro had written Twain to ask him about becoming a successful writer. Twain’s response ran five pages and was less than encouraging. Twain finished by saying that, if Munro found the tone of the letter too harsh, he could take comfort in the fact that the effort had cost Twain a day of work on his book, because, as Twain wrote, “he that desires to do the best work he can, doth not put a part of his day’s steam into a letter, first and then work with a three-quarter head of it on a book afterward, you know.”

This train of thought started this morning when I read Simon Houpt’s piece in the Globe and Mail, which asks the question, Is plagiarism the result of journalists being stretched thin? Houpt recapped a host of scandals in which writers with high-profile publications have been caught plagiarizing or just making stuff up, from CNN host and author Fareed Zakaria to Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The Cooke incident may have been three decades ago, but the frequency of such incidents appears to be on the rise. Houpt’s piece suggests writers may simply be stretched too far by the added demands of blogging and other social media activities. It just ain’t enough anymore to have a byline or two in tomorrow’s print edition. This is particularly evident among those in the top tier of the journalistic profession, where there is pressure to maintain and grow a “personal brand.”

Houpt quotes James Fallows, international correspondent with the Atlantic, who contends that the recent cases of high-profile plagiarism “may be a useful moment to re-establish a difference between actual written product – that is, an article, a book, or even a personal blog posting – and things everybody assumes to be corporate.”

I couldn’t agree more. Fallows also pointed out savvy consumers understand that anchors on the six o’clock news haven’t necessarily written their own material, but the written word is a different sort of beast, especially when it is topped with a byline. To me, that byline is a personal stamp by that writer that makes them accountable for every word that comes after. Those words will (hopefully) have been edited by someone else before publication, but the burden is still on the writer to ensure accuracy of the facts and proper attribution.

It’s devilishly easy to dig up all sorts of data points and background information on the Internet and lose track of the origin. Even more so if that material has come from a colleague or staff researcher. Does this excuse plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental? No. But it does reaffirm the need to take those few extra minutes to reflect, review and revise as needed, and do so without having one eye on Twitter or Facebook at the same time. The buck stops with whoever owns that byline, no matter what kind of pressure is on them.

Image: Edutopia.org, Wesley Bedrosian

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