Tag Archives: Online Journalism

We Need to Talk About Plagiarism

27 Sep
Image by ▲Bonard▼, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by ▲Bonard▼, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

We need to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because it exists, and to paraphrase a film critic friend of mine: “It seems like there’s a new plagiarism scandal in journalism every month.”

He’s right, it does feel like that, and from recent examples like Lianne ‘The Queen of Cut and Paste’ Spiderbaby, to Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard from WhatCulture! it feels like the journalism industry has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

As a journalist, all you have is your integrity, and once that’s gone, you have nothing. You are only ever as good as your last article, you will only ever be as good as the best article that you have ever written. Plagiarism never benefits anyone because once the plagiarism is uncovered – and it will be uncovered – then the writer and their publication will lose credibility and respect.

What shocks me is when people try to stick up for the plagiariser; although nine times out of ten, these are usually fans of the writer, who don’t work within the industry, but there have been exceptions. Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, made a very premature statement supporting Spiderbaby when her plagiarism was discovered, which he was then forced to retract when it became clear that she had in fact, plagiarised the articles that she’d written for him too.

It’s odd that when a plagiarism scandal erupts, that many editors will stand by the plagiariser despite proof of their wrongdoing. For example, in 2011, Simon Kelner, then editor of The Independent, stood by Johann Hari after evidence of plagiarism and other questionable behaviour was brought to light. Instead of being sacked, Hari was suspended and sent for ‘retraining’ in the US. He handed back his Orwell Prize, made an “evasive” public apology, but didn’t personally apologise to the writers that he had stolen from.

During his suspension, Hari decided not to return to the paper, and while both Hari and Kelner have since left The Independent, The paper’s reputation was badly damaged, just as Hari’s reputation was severely damaged by his plagiarism. So, despite Kelner standing by Hari, it was all for nothing; everyone came off badly because of his plagiarism and their failure to deal with it properly.

Obviously, an editor must support their staff, but when a staff member has plagiarised someone else’s work, then they must also protect their publication. So, why then, do some editors reveal their loyalty to a plagiariser, when a plagiariser, by definition, is incapable of thinking of anyone but themselves? In the case of WhatCulture! their initial reaction was to continue as normal by not commenting on the accusations, and continuing to publish work by both the writers in question.

A few days later, and after significant pressure, they broke their silence, saying:

WhatCulture! Initial Statement

WhatCulture! Initial Statement

Although the editors may have thought that by acknowledging the scandal, they were then dealing with it, these tweets only created more questions. What processes? What disciplinary procedures? What steps had been put in place? By not being transparent and open about what exactly they were doing, WhatCulture! were complicit in their silence; it looked like they were supporting the plagiarisers on their team over basic journalistic integrity.

Unsurprisingly, no one felt that this was good enough, and not long after, WhatCulture! released an official statement on the scandal. They apologised profusely, not just to the writers whose work was stolen, but tellingly, they also apologised to the plagiarisers for putting them under too much pressure. Additionally, the offered compensation to all the writers who had been ripped off. It was a long time coming, and while the editors were initially slow to act, they did claw back some respect.

There are two very positive lessons that we can take from these recent plagiarism scandals. The first is that for every plagiariser, there is someone, somewhere who is willing to put the time and effort to research their output and find examples of plagiarism. So, for every Lianne Spiderbaby, there is Mike White, and for every Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard, there is Maxwell Yezpitelok, Simon Columb and Ali Gray, willing to blow the whistle, to hold critics to account and to reveal the extent of every bad journalist’s unethical practices.

The second lesson is that each time this happens, each time someone is caught plagiarising, the net tightens just a little bit more. People get angrier, editors get more wary and publications continue to crack down on this immoral and unethical behaviour. Exposing plagiarism in all its forms, whether it is uncovered in art, design, photography, film, music, journalism, poetry and academia forces us to confront it head on. It makes representatives of all these industries start to think about how they can make their respective disciplines better and more trustworthy.

In the case of journalism, the industry is under enough threat from outside forces for it to be destroyed by a series of bad journalists. As a collective we are already dealing with their being not enough jobs, little money, a lack of job security and cuts. Take a look at the new arts section from the Independent On Sunday, where it was decided that sacking all their arts critics – each of them well-respected writers with years of experience – was preferable to publishing ‘reviews’ like this.

Clearly, this attitude isn’t good enough, and when editors and publications fail to properly deal with plagiarists, it not only undermines our industry; it damns us all. Inaction will be the death of arts journalism; not online content, not a lack of advertising, but apathy. Our apathy will kill the industry.

Publishing bad writers with poor ethics and an even worse attitude is not a good idea, and editors and publishers must stand up to these people. Their inaction condones the writer’s behaviour and ensures that they will get away with it time and time again. It’s time to make a stand, to send a message to say that plagiarism will not, and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

It’s time to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because we can’t keep letting this happen in journalism.

What I Learned About Theatre Criticism in 2012

27 Dec

The Critic

This year has really flown by. It seems like last week I was preparing for the Fringe and now, suddenly, here I am, sitting in my living room, surrounded by Christmas chocolates, wondering what the Hell happened this year. So, in the spirit of reflection, procrastination and a slice of goodwill, here are the vital lessons I learned about theatre criticism this year.

You Will Never Be Popular

There’s one thing I can confidently say about being a theatre critic; you will have  a very interesting relationship with those around you. Directors, actors, the public and even theatre FOH staff may not like you. Unless you’ve done something really personal to offend them, don’t sweat it, this is part of the job. If you write something people agree with, they will celebrate you; if you write a piece that they disagree with, then they will probably dismiss you. Your name will be celebrated by some, but unfortunately, it will become mud in some circles – accept it, wear it as a badge of honour, but don’t let it get you down.

Arguments on Twitter Are Never a Good Idea

I love Twitter – it’s probably my favourite social network – and while I don’t update my Twitter feed daily, I’m on the site every day, sometimes several times a day. But, like social networks, it has its downside, in fact, it has many downsides at times.  The 140 character limit of a tweet can be frustratingly limited, and we’re all guilty of leaping to the wrong conclusions because of one misunderstood tweet from time to time. So, even though so-called ‘Twitter spats’ can be very, very funny to read, they are nowhere as fun to be involved in – especially if you’re on the receiving end of another person’s unrestrained and completely unexpected bile. If you find yourself being drawn into a Twitter spat, don’t rise to anything, keep a clear head, and a sense of humour.

Nasty Critics Get Nowhere

Have you ever had to work with, or had the misfortune of being around a nasty person? Someone who thought nothing of being rude about other people in order to make themselves seem better by comparison? Well, some people seem to think that this is the way forward in theatre criticism. All too often, I have seen new critics attempt to ruffle feathers by writing very harsh, or downright rude reviews – this doesn’t get you very far, it gives you a bad reputation, and it makes you seem bitter. Don’t do this. The way to make your mark is by writing good reviews and being a reliable writer, you want to make friends and influence people, not be rude and alienate them.

Other Critics Will Irritate You

Believe it or not, critics are people too. And just like every other human beings, we are as irrational and emotional and as fallible as everyone else on the planet. This year was the year that I really managed to get out there and meet lots of critics; from established critics, to brand new critics, to up-and-coming critics, and I learned something new from all of them. However, as with every vocation, it’s almost impossible to get on with everyone, and some critics will naturally clash. Why? Because we are human; we share our opinions, we don’t always agree with each other’s opinions, and we have to work together in very confined spaces. So, accept that people will annoy you, and accept that you probably annoy other people too, and for the sake of a quiet life, try to avoid the ones you don’t get on with, they’re probably not really worth getting annoyed about.

Content is King

Sure, some publications will get read regardless of the quality of their content; perhaps the best example of this is The Daily Mail, but please excuse the cliché for a moment, because content is king for critics. We have to get our facts right first time, we must be impartial, fair, and we have to make our points with care our signature style. Everyone’s got a different way of writing, and that’s what’s really beautiful about the critical game – we’re all very distinctive in our own way. But remember, when writing reviews to research the production, question its themes and direction and write well. Believe me, editors and readers always remember the critics that write well.

Online Publications Will Be the Future (In the Future)

The people that lament the apparent death of print journalism (see below) and it is true that the industry is losing more money every year; we haven’t quite worked out how to make money from online journalism just yet. Yes, some publications, like The Times, have a paywall, and Newsweek recently ended their print edition to go online only, but the recent death of The Daily,Rupert Murdoch’s paid news app for the iPadproves that while demand for quality online journalism is high, we haven’t quite found a way to make real, sustainable and regular money from it.

Print is Not Dead

Just a few years ago, traditional print journalism was in its prime, and online journalism was seen as more of a support to the print format. Now, of course, online has overtaken print, and many commentators, pundits, journalists and writers have been quick to cry that print journalism, for the most part, is dead. I disagree, there is still a market for print journalism – a lot of magazines can only work in the print format – and a lot of people prefer them. It’s true, publishers, even some leading ones, are losing money – but the presses are still printing our daily, weekly and monthly magazines. In fact, until every company stops churning out a print version of their publication, then the medium is very much alive.

Know Your Worth

When you take your first wobbly steps on the sticky path towards becoming a recognised, respected and paid theatre critic, you will have to do some work for free. This is a great way to start building up your portfolio and getting your name out there, and the good thing about building up your portfolio this way, is that there are always lots of websites looking for voluntary writers. However, the bad thing about this situation is that there are always websites looking for unpaid writers. Like I said before, we’re still trying to find a way to make money from online journalism, and so, many websites and editors can’t pay their writers, because there is no money. This is true for a number of sites, but some sites can and do, pay their writers, but often use voluntary writers too. It’s important to know your worth, though, and don’t get stuck doing unpaid work for years and years or for the sake of ‘getting a link back to your blog’ or ‘having your name published’. Get some writing work, get some experience, and then start looking for ways to get money for your work if you can.

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