By Joseph E. Rathjen
Member, National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Attribute … Attribute … Attribute.
Authors hear that word constantly from responsible editors who have only their publication’s and their writers’ best (legal) interests at heart. Plagiarism is an accusation that echoes through a newspaper’s editorial halls like a sonic boom and one that can have long and devastating legal repercussions.
Take, for example, the latest catastrophe that has laid an ominous cloud over the editorial board of the New York Daily News and one that should serve as a warning to writers of both print and online content everywhere.
In a blatant disregard for acknowledging content source, an editor at the Daily News allegedly removed quotation marks from “Black Lives Matter” writer Shaun King’s opinion column about a police shooting. The removed quotations (block quotes) and credit links referenced material King had pulled from two articles that previously appeared in The Daily Beast and FiveThirtyEight.com and which King claimed were properly supplied to the editor.
King himself said he had sent the original draft to the editor with the proper attributes and links for specific excerpts he had included in the article, but the editor removed them and let the column go to print — minus the quotes and the credit links.
King later supplied a copy of the article’s original email submission as proof.
A controversy quickly ensued, publicly on Twitter, with King being accused of plagiarism. Although King had originally said nothing about the incident, he then quickly pointed to the editor when the story went viral. As a result, the Daily News fired the editor and publicly admitted what he had done.
The editor, Jotham Sederstrom, admitted that he had been “sloppy” but claimed that he entered King’s original submission with the attributes into the newspaper’s content managing system but that a formatting glitch removed the attributes before it went to print.
But, the controversy did not end there. Many people complained that King and the newspaper should have said something publicly about the matter as soon as the article was published and as soon as he noticed the attributes were omitted. Coincidentally, King has been accused of plagiarism in the past.
Some people said King’s defense was questionable and indifferent at best. King said that it was normal for him never to read his columns in the newspaper after they were published, so he knew nothing about it until the controversy erupted.
Which brings us, of course, to accountability. Should a writer be held accountable for such a blatant, literary violation spawned on by an incompetent editor? Should they be allowed and demand to be responsible before publication to check the final draft or edits before an article goes to print?
It’s an important question and one which has ignited a firestorm of debate in the online publishing community.
It is common knowledge how editors at newspapers like the Daily News are under extreme pressure to put out enough daily content on their online sites, so it is conceivable to see how such an oversight can occur. But should that give a publication a free pass?
Personally, I feel that because Shaun King wasn’t at fault, he shouldn’t be held liable. However, it would have been better for him to have contacted the original sources as soon as possible to explain what had transpired between him and the editor. By not doing so, King put himself in the precarious position of appearing to have committed, ignored or covered up the injustice.
The resounding, echoing of this story for writers is that sometimes unknowingly and even after taking the proper steps to attribute credit for borrowed content, we can still find ourselves in a lawsuit. Of course, that is not fair but should make all of us remember to go one step further to ensure that our content and our reputations are not at risk.
Plus, we should always coordinate our formatting programs with those of our publishing clients to avoid formatting conflicts like the one that happened in the Daily News.
Is your Microsoft Word version compatible with the publisher’s software program? Does your writer/publisher contract demand final approval and protection from publisher mishaps?
Plagiarism and proper attribution are serious enough reasons always to insist we have final approval before our material goes to print. It may be an annoyance to some and seem like a rude thing to do to a busy editor, but what writer wants to be at the receiving end of a nasty and a career-ending lawsuit?
Of course, no one expects an editor to commit such a blatant violation, but that’s what writer contracts are for — to protect ourselves when something goes wrong once the submitted copy leaves our hands.
In the literary world, it is our very own byline at the top of an article that speaks volumes about our professionalism, our responsibility and the industry we represent.
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Joseph E. Rathjen is a blogger, a freelance writer, an NSNC member and a book author. He posts at The Political and Social Chaos Blog.
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The National Society of Newspaper Columnists welcomes submissions from its members. Guidelines are other details can be found at “Submit News, Plug Your New …” on our website.