Notes on a plagiarism scandal: Erasing the “thin grey line”

A few quick hits about the Wente plagiarism scandal, mostly for my own reference as it relates to social media.

  • All of the actual reporting on Margaret Wente’s serial plagiarism (sordid summary; timeline) has been undertaken not by professional reporters but by independent bloggers, primarily Ottawa artist and professor Carol Wainio. Even now, our old-school media outlets have confined themselves to reporting or commenting on the accusations, not actually looking for instances of plagiarism. The result: A week after the tweets hit the fan, Wainio, not reporters or columnists, gets Wente dead to rights on an even-more clear-cut example of plagiarism.
  • I think it’s telling that the first two journalists to comment on Wente’s plagiarism were the National Post’s Chris Selley and MacleansColby Cosh, both former independent bloggers. Do bloggers have a different set of ethics than traditional journalists? Is this a generational thing?
  • Much has been made of how Canada’s professional journalists have been silent about plagiarism, and rightly so. We shouldn’t be surprised by this silence. All professions tend to protect their own: the police have their “Thin blue line”; call journalism’s equivalent “The thin grey line.” It’s why we have civilian oversight over the police, and anonymous academic peer-review, for that matter.
  • This incident proves decisively that independent bloggers can do media criticism much better than professional reporters, precisely because they’re outside the media bubble. Paid journalists should humbly take to heart the many implications of this reality. (Matthew Ingram makes a similar point.)
  • There’s been much hand-wringing about how journalists now have to do their job with bloggers looking over their shoulder. This is the wrong way to look at it. Journalism, for the first time, is now subject to effective oversight that requires reporters and columnists to live up to the standards they should have been following all along. As Ingram notes:

Like every other traditional media outlet, they [the Globe and Mail] are going to have to get used to the idea of no longer being on a pedestal, no longer being the default choice for content — and no longer able to get away with simply rewriting what others have said and passing it off as original thought.

  • The problem for Canadian journalists is not that people now think that all journalists are plagiarists, as Jim Brown suggested on The Current last week. It’s about trust: Media outlets’ slow take-up of (and continued non-investigation into) the issue, even after extensive documentation of the problem, raises big questions. As Vice magazine comments, “Canadians are nice people, sort of, and in the country’s tiny media bubble anyone and everyone is afraid of pissing off someone they might run into at the next cocktail party.” If journalists cannot be trusted to investigate a story that’s handed to them on a silver platter, what does this say about their tenacity regarding, say, the Ottawa politicians they cover day-in and day-out? The Wente scandal sows the seeds of doubt. Not good.
  • Kathy English, the Toronto Star‘s public editor, had the most honest assessment of the whole debacle and its significance.
  • Oversight is better than no oversight. If we can get past the self-pity stage, embracing independent bloggers like Wainio as allies and not trespassers will improve the quality of Canadian journalism. That would be a win-win situation, for journalists and the readers who depend on them.
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