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The Columbia Missourian ousted columnist and journalism icon John Merrill last week after what the editor deemed an incident of plagiarism in a column about the University of Missouri’s women’s and gender studies program.
Given Merrill’s stature, the news spread like wildfire in journalistic circles, with Editor & Publisher and Romensko among those fanning the flames. Merrill later apologized for what he said was “carelessness,” but rejected the idea that he was “a villain, a linguistic thief, or worse.”
Unfortunately, Merrill is being vilified for doing what is a matter of routine for many columnists, using a quote already in the public domain without noting where that quote came from.
Take nationally syndicated columnist Ted Rall, for example. He leads his Nov. 5 column with a quote:
“The fact that a lot of people dislike you is troubling,” says the director of the, talking about (D-Carpetbagger, Slept Her Way Into National Prominence, NY).
Where did that quote come from? Did Rall pull it from a press release? Did he interview the poll director personally? No. In fact, the quote was taken from an Oct. 31 article in the Connecticut Post. Here’s the quote as it appears in the cached version of the article:
“She has very high unfavorable numbers and that is a concern. The fact that a lot of people dislike you is troubling,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
When contacted by e-mail, Rall readily acknowledged getting the quote from the Post, noting that “it is commonly accepted practice to quote from newspaper articles and other outlets in opinion columns.”
As to Merrill, Rall said, “If things are as you say, his critics are ignorant of the norms of opinion writing. Taking quotes from media accounts occurs in every day’s New York Times Op/Ed page.”
“Quote lifting,” the practice of taking a quote from another publication and using it without crediting that organization, describes a wide range of possible journalistic crimes. In a news article, it is generally forbidden. The reasoning behind that prohibition is that a writer cannot substantiate the accuracy of the quote. Therefore, it is proper to attribute not only the quote but the quoter as well.
Some would also argue that lifting quotes is stealing the efforts of another reporter. You didn’t do the work of contacting the person yourself, therefore you have not earned the right to use the quote without crediting the interviewer.
With opinion columns, the matter becomes much less black and white.
As Ralph Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, suggests in a response to Merrill’s apology, a columnist is usually not implying that he or she has personally interviewed the subject. Rather, the implication is that the columnist is using “quotes read elsewhere as background.”
Is Rall guilty of plagiarism? Like Merrill, should he be immediately dropped with subsequent high profile coverage in Editor & Publisher and Romenesko? No.
Was Merrill himself guilty of plagiarism? Was he the victim of an overzealous editor? Or, as some suggest, was his real crime “mocking the gender studies department?”
[Disclosure: I am a 1995 graduate of the University of Missouri, where I received my doctoral degree in journalism. I took a Philosophy of Journalism class with Merrill during that time period. While working as a graduate instructor, I conversed with him regularly and sought out his advice numerous times. I’m also a big fan of his writing.]