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A Terrible Misunderstanding

August 28, 2006

StressedIn a nutshell, Claire Zulkey parodied this post by Brian Clark, which was later stolen by Melissa Whitworth, who’s editor published it on the Daily Telegraph’s website as her own work.

It was later removed, but the cache still remains. Melissa has since posted her explanation of the ‘terrible misunderstanding’.

At first glance, her explanation is plausible, of a trivial mistake, that was never meant to hurt anybody, and one that would have been resolved regardless of any keen-eyed bloggers. Peer back the thin plastic covering of journalistic schmooze however, and you see a complacent journalist treading water and an overloaded negligent editor.

Melissa attempts to portray a minor misunderstanding. What she exposes is a disturbing snapshot of media values in the 21st century.

This is what I read between those hastily typed lines.

Somebody screwed up. Either the faceless editor, the apologetic journalist, or they both did.

Scenario A – Melissa Plagiarised Claire

For reasons best known to herself, Melissa decided that Claire’s post about blogging would do nicely as her next installment on her Daily Telegraph blog. She copys the text, ensures no reference to Claire is included, and submits via email to her editor for publishing. Busy editor on autopilot does quick copy and paste without reading it, and seconds later it’s online.

Scenario B – A Terrible Misunderstanding

While browsing blogs, probably researching her next ‘feature’, Melissa finds Claire’s post. She decides the humour would be appreciated by her editor and emails him/her the post. Editor checks email, sees email from Melissa, the word blog mentioned and a body of test, and assumes it’s her latest installment of her blog and publishes it by mistake.

If either of these 2 scenarios is accurate, then out of the journalist and the editor, who is the innocent party? Neither, I think.

If Melissa plagiarised Claire, the she is guilty of gross misconduct, dereliction of duty, and breach of ethics and should be punished accordingly. However, regardless of how she worded her ‘article submission’ to her editor, a quick glance through the content would have set alarm bells ringing. Melissa lives and works in New York, yet the post starts “So as I’m writing this, I’m at my apartment building in Chicago.” The content is about blogging, yet Melissa writes exclusively about New York.

Regardless of how well Melissa disguised it as ‘her work’, the editor must have been careless and inattentive to have published what was obviously not her work.

The suggested misunderstanding poses more questions than it does answers. If she had ’emailed a link’, as many people do every day, why did she email the content and not the link to the content? If she emailed the content why didn’t she include references to who it was by / where it was from? If she did include the author’s details, why did the editor ignore them and publish the content as having been written by Melissa?

There are two points which are clear from this incident. Firstly, the editor almost certainly didn’t read the content before publishing it. Secondly, how easy it is to plagiarise a source from the internet and get away with it.

Publishing without reading the content is akin to signing a contract without reading the small print – not guaranteed to end in tears, but a risk not worth taking. Melissa may or may not get a slap on the wrists for this, but her editor was equally at fault and deserves at least severely remanding.

Intentionally or accidentally, Melissa managed to plagiarise extremely easily, and could have quite easily got away with it if her source hadn’t linked back to the original post. Just shows the views offline journalists have of the blogosphere and it’s content, but that’s a different can of worms.

Moral of the story – Link your posts as if your life depends on it. It might be the difference between an e-thief getting away with plagiarising your work or not.

~ TranceFixed

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