Plagiarism In North Dakota, Minnesota

One of the biggest stories of the day is this sad tale of a 28-year journalism veteran who allegedly plagiarized most of the columns he wrote in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Jon Flatland even won an award for one of the columns he submitted to a statewide contest, which apparently turned out to have been written by someone else.

What on earth could make someone think that sort of thing is okay? There are certain gray areas in the profession, such as press releases, which in some newspapers are used in whole or in part without attribution because they’re given to you for that purpose. The people who send them want you to use them. Mostly, we edit those or trim them down to fit our style.

And then there’s the question of attribution for ideas. If I write about sexism in gaming, maybe I should really be linking not just the original sources, but add a little via at the end, to give credit to the people I found the source through (this is very often BoingBoing or Brainiac). I’m not taking words from them, but they did think of it first, or find it first. I’ll try to do a bit better at attribution in the future.

So yes, there are some grey areas.

But then there’s taking a whole column and slapping your own name on it. Who even does that? I can see why Blooming Prairie didn’t think to vet Flatland for plagiarism–he’d been working in journalism for 28 years, for heaven’s sakes. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me that someone could go on grabbing other people’s writing for that long without getting caught.

Once I was asked by a nervous editor whether I had actually interviewed a source, because another media outlet had the same quote I had used. (I think the source had written down the comment and read it back to both of us.) I was a little confused. Of course I’d interviewed him. How else would I have gotten the quote?

Oh. I could have stolen it.

And now look at poor Blooming Prairie. (via Logan Adams) It’s apologized and made efforts to let people know what happened. Other papers Flatland worked for are doing the same thing.

Here’s Dave Fox’s story of the whole sordid business. Fox is the humor writer who discovered the alleged plagiarism in the first place.

Edit: Poynter has a bit on how Flatland learned the jig was up.