I fear for my business when people working in newsrooms don’t understand the damage caused by plagiarism.
Last week, the Casa Grande Dispatch published a commentary by staff writer Alan Levine that levels accusations against the East Valley Tribune for the way we are reporting and commenting on Pinal County Sheriff Chris Vasquez’s repeated and admitted acts of plagiarism. Levine contends that, “(S)omeone at the (Tribune) is attempting to influence an election.”
If that were the case, and it certainly is not, one would think that we would have included the name of Vasquez’s opponent in at least one of the stories or editorials — we have not. It is not relevant to the issue. What we are doing, quite simply, is our job: We are researching and reporting truthfully about the unethical actions of an elected official — and more than that, an elected law enforcement official. It is what journalists do — serve as watchdogs for our readers to let them know about the unscrupulous behavior of those in power.
Levine argues that no one suffered harm and Vasquez did not gain from the theft of others’ work, much of which appeared in, as Levine called them, “monthly public service letters that are run in local newspapers.”
Truth be told, Vasquez reaped the rewards of having his name repeatedly placed in front of Pinal County voters, attached to prose that he was unable or unwilling to craft on his own. He misrepresented himself to those he is sworn to protect. Voters lost, Vasquez gained. And if, as Levine contends, the sheriff was too busy to compose the works on his own, all Vasquez had to do was attribute the information to the original source (“I agree with all of the points in this speech by the governor of Oregon”).
Levine goes on to coddle Vasquez for his breach of conduct, stating those who are not professional writers should not be expected to understand the nuances of plagiarism. My daughter just completed the eighth grade, and one of her final assignments was a five-page research paper. For that report, she cited 19 separate sources. On Vasquez’s campaign Web site (www.vasquez4sheriff.com), he lists that he “attended the University of Phoenix receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Management and a Master of Arts in Organizational Management. Sheriff Vasquez also has two Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice and Paralegal Studies.” If an eighth-grader knows that information gleaned from others must be attributed, then someone with Vasquez’s educational background certainly should have the same level of understanding.
Why is plagiarism so bad? Because it is an easy, lazy way to avoid the hard work of creating original content. It is intellectual dishonesty. It is theft. There is an oft-cited statement, its origin unknown, that contends that integrity is when you do the right thing even though no one is watching. Plagiarists pray that their works are read in the dark, so as not to expose them to the light of truth.
Levine closes with the statement: “It’s about political ethics and journalistic conduct.” It most certainly is, and Levine needs proper lessons in both areas.