CAMP 2013: Working without a net

By JAWS 2013 Fellow Cherise Newsome

Developing stronger reporting policies helps deter plagiarism and fabrication.

Those are the “black eyes” that hurt journalists’ credibility, Teresa Schmedding said during a workshop at the annual Journalism & Women Symposium conference.

Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, co-hosted  “Working Without a Net…and Avoiding Plagiarism,” which focused on ways journalists can avoid and identify plagiarism.

She defined plagiarism as taking content that someone else put together and passing it off as your own. Instead, reporters should conduct their own source reporting and give credit to competitors whose information they use, she said.

News organizations should establish citation and aggregation policies – such as rules about the percentage of unoriginal material that can be used in a reporter’s work – to help avoid plagiarism. Clearly defined disciplinary measures and spot checks also help, she said.

Participants debated the types of common information that can be used without specific attribution, such as information about the recent problems with websites used during the Affordable Care Act rollout.

Some audience members said details about those widely-known problems don’t need attribution to the sources who first reported the news, while others said attributing official sources, and not just media reports, strengthens a story’s credibility.

Schmedding encouraged journalists to attribute everything that isn’t originally-sourced material in an effort to be fair to those who’ve done the work  and to be transparent about your own efforts.

Also during the workshop, former New York Times copy desk chief Merrill Perlman offered self-editing tips.

Reading aloud, enlarging fonts and tracking changes can help journalists catch errors before they’re published, she said.

Reporters must establish a fact-checking routine, including double checking basic info, such as name spellings and numbers.  Those are all a part of the writing and editing process, she said.

Some workshop participants lamented shrinking copy desks and increasing workloads as challenges to producing error-free copy.

Perlman said errors crop up because of carelessness, the reliance on wrong sources and lack of resources. Time is the No. 1 enemy, she said. Pride and selfishness also get in the way of correcting errors, she said.

Newsrooms should establish clear and consistent sourcing and corrections policies, she said.