We’ve prepared a tutorial for eWeek hacks

Recently our FSJ Spotlight Team has discovered that eWeek columnist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (show hard at work, right) has been plundering press releases and reprinting huge sections of them, verbatim, in stories under his byline. (Ironically these stories are then copyrighted by eWeek parent company Ziff-Davis, which means other hacks can’t copy them from eWeek. Outrageous!) The “Copygate” scandal ratcheted up a notch yesterday after Vaughan-Nichols published an indignant response to our investigation in which he admits to lifting press releases and putting his name on them but then says FSJ is a bastard for calling him on this — because, he says, all reporters do this.

But Katie insists that’s not the case. She says in all her years doing PR and communications, she’s never seen a case of a hack lifting entire chunks of press releases and publishing them verbatim under a byline.

Frankly we’re amazed that this renowned journalist, who is chairman of the Internet Press Guild, remains uninformed about this issue. In an effort to be helpful, our communications team has prepared some links which Steven J. Vaughan-Cut-and-Paste and his editors at eWeek might find useful.

1. Fred Brown, who is vice chairman of the Ethics Committee at the Society of Professional Journalists and helped draft that organization’s Code of Ethics, responded to our email inquiry seeking his opinion about reporters copying press releases into bylined articles.

Fred’s emailed response: “SPJ’s code of ethics advises journalists to ‘never plagiarize’ — it’s the only absolute in the code — but it doesn’t explicitly define what that means. I’d say it means using someone else’s work without giving the author credit. Copying from a press release, without putting that copied material in quotes and saying where it comes from, is, at the very least, lazy and sloppy — and for that reason unethical. But it falls somewhat short of the more egregious forms of plagiarism. As you say, I’m sure the people who produced the press releases are happy to have their carefully parsed words repeated verbatim.”

(Worth noting: The Internet Press Guild, where Steven J. Vaughan-Cut-and-Paste is chairman, claims it adheres to standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists. Ahem.)

2. Here’s an article from the American Press Institute titled “When does sloppy attribution become plagiarism?”

Money quote: “Substantial theft of whole passages of a press release is no different from substantial theft from another source. It doesn’t matter that the organization offered the press release for publication and welcomes your verbatim publication. The obligation to be original is an obligation to readers, not just sources. Consent of the source doesn’t override that obligation to readers. …Our credibility is precious and a sloppy journalist is hardly better than a crooked journalist.”

3. The Seattle Times provides this set of plagiarism guidelines in a Q&A format for its reporters. Money quote:

“Q. What about press releases? Can we lift information verbatim from a news release for background or boilerplate?
A. We discourage using verbatim language from news releases. Quotes from them should be attributed in the text, “…said in a news release,” or with similar language.”

Um, Ziff-Davis editors? Are you paying attention? Of course not. If you were, you’d have noticed this yourselves.