Plagiarism in Journalism: Why does it keep happening?

Plagiarism in Journalism: Why does it keep happening?
Yohannie Linggasari

Often times, plagiarism cases in journalism left unsettled and forgotten. Compared to cases in the academic world, the same crime received only very little backlash in the media industry. We talked to journalists to understand more about this matter.

In a creative line of work such as journalism, it might be surprising that plagiarism is something that makes a regular occurrence in this industry, especially when many journalists consider it still such a taboo.

But, the fact is, the lack of definitive data may be a sign that plagiarism in the journalism world has not received proper attention. Often at times, it only caused uproar for a short while, before being overtaken by the next news story. So it is not at all surprising that plagiarism continues to happen, and the culprits' actions often go unpunished.

Abraham Utama, who is currently working as a journalist at BBC News, has experienced disheartening events related to plagiarism, twice. The first case occurred in 2016, while the second occured in August. “My coverage was quoted in its entirety, without adding any new element, and they attached the name of their staff as a byline as if it was their work,” said Abraham.

Abraham’s vexation mounted up since no fair resolution was reached for the case that occurred this year. The cause, according to Abraham, was the lack of a division that is specialised in legal issues, including plagiarism. “The plagiarist media only ended up writing my name and mentioning that the article had already been published first in my media. There was no apology.”

Meanwhile, the 2016 case was resolved with an apology from the plagiarist media aided in large part by Abraham's employer's legal division, which successfully won compensation from the plagiarist.

“Between these two cases, I was more satisfied with the one that ended with an apology and compensation. But actually, I was hoping that my work would not get stolen, because no matter how hard they apologised or how much they paid compensation, the plagiarist had already gained the benefits from my hard work,” said Abraham.

Vice Editor-in-Chief of KOMPAS daily, Paulus Tri Agung Kristanto, or Tra, had a different experience. His work was actually plagiarised by his own friend whom he often met in the field. He realised his work was stolen because a day after the article was published on KOMPAS, there was another printed media publishing the same news. “Granted, it did not fully copy the news I had written, but three or four paragraphs were exactly the same,” he explained.

Tra knew that it was his writing style, so his work was certainly plagiarised. The problem was, this was not easy to prove since the plagiarist media had changed several things in the paragraphs. Tra had to think hard to prove that his work was stolen.

“I intentionally misspelled my respondent’s name, having discussed it with my editor and respondent. I wrote ‘Sutaryo’ instead of his real name, ‘Sutardjo,’” explained Tra.

The misspelled name showed up precisely the same in the media he suspected of committing plagiarism. “I confronted my friend, and he still did not admit it. The sad truth is, plagiarism does happen among journalists and by journalists,” he said.

Tra thinks that plagiarism happens a lot in the media world because some journalists are lazy. “This happens not because journalists are not knowledgeable enough, or that they are unable to explain current issues, but because they do not want to think."

How to avoid it
Dwidjo Utomo Maksum, a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) Council of Ethics, explained that plagiarism is defined as an act of consciously stealing, copying, or taking a work, idea, and data of someone's else. Having said that, Dwidjo thinks that there has yet to be a fixed agreement among all media regarding this issue. So, there are still debates on what is considered plagiarism and what is not.

In carrying out their work, journalists often have to extract or translate information from international news, to then be retold and published in the media where they work. The most important thing when quoting, said Dwidjo, is to mention the name of the author or journalist and the media where the work was first published.

However, this is not enough. Dwidjo thinks there has to be an effort to contact the journalist and management of the media where it was published.

“This is to make sure of any financial compensation that may have to be paid for using the work because not every work is dedicated for free to the public, considering the cost incurred to create the article or work in the first place,” he emphasised.

He also thinks it is crucial to educate the media that mentioning the author's name and the media from which the article was extracted does not reduce the integrity of the media. “On the contrary, it is an elegant and smart thing to do.”

Meanwhile, Tra feels that currently, there are no suitable sanctions handed down to plagiarists. If we bring the issue to a journalistic organisation such as the Indonesian Journalist Association or Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia (PWI), its council will only convene a hearing upon receiving a complaint. “The problem is, it is hard to find the evidence, especially among online media. When caught plagiarising, they can simply change or delete the news.”

On the other hand, Abraham thinks that all professionals in journalism should give a moral sanction to plagiarists, both to the media and journalists involved. “Moral sanction will lead to two things: shame and ruined reputation. These types of punishments will make would-be plagiarists think twice, especially if they are journalists. As soon as they are proven to commit plagiarism, their future in the industry will fall to pieces,” he said.

Who cares?
Abraham feels that plagiarism in the media often happens due to the minimal moral sanction to plagiarists. He believes journalist associations should have given a much more severe sanction. “The current journalist groups focus more on anti-violence towards journalists and advocating journalists’ low wages, instead of promoting the creation of competent journalism work,” he said.

The journalism ecosystem in Indonesia at the moment, according to him, does not encourage journalists to compete by providing the best work. “If I was beaten by the police during a demonstration coverage, or kidnapped by a soldier during an investigation, people might empathise. But if my or another journalist’s work is plagiarised, who cares?”

“So what are my plagiarists doing right now? They are still working in media, receiving salary, and may be gaining promotion if they continue their careers in this industry. This needs to be criticised, just like human rights activists question the career of police officers that beat up students or the promotion of soldiers who kidnap pro-democracy activists. The same logic applies,” he said.

According to Dwidjo, media plagiarism cases should be resolved through legal means, referring to Law Number 28 Year 2014 on Copyrights. However, plagiarists often escape the proper punishment and walk free due to settling outside of court.

In addition to the lack of attention from journalist organisations, Abraham also thinks that media companies often fail to realise that other media has been plagiarising the work of their journalists. Permissive responses by fellow media and readers toward plagiarists show as if plagiarism is not something to be frowned upon. With this in mind, it looks like the battle for a media free from plagiarism is far from over.

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