Plagiarism and the Why Not Generation

Photograph courtesy of iStock.

A terrific article by Jonathan Bailey on the Benny Johnson/Buzzfeed plagiarism scandal appeared in my inbox today, and it was enlightening and journalistically frightening.

One of my favorite journalism professors at Louisiana State University’s School of Journalism, now Manship School of Mass Communications, was Dr. Whitney Mundt. He viewed his green students with the eyes of an old school journalism hand who’d experienced war, civil rights horrors, crime, and other newsworthy stories. He’d either lived through, covered, or read about all of them.
His subject was Ethics, but most of the time it was the lack of ethics in a story, the showing or attaining of news coverage that was unsavory. He often shocked us with photographs used in the press to make a point of what was prurient or necessary in putting together news.

It seems that all he was warning us about has come to be accepted in media today, with only mild reactions or pushing back against seeing or being told too much. Whether it’s the revealing the name of a rape victim, or video of a horrendous accident, the lowest part of news gathering will show or tell.

When I was reading “The Looming Plagiarism Crisis” I thought of what Dr. Mundt would make of the wasteland of news, and deterioration of journalism we’re subjected to in this scary new age. Never mind the drive to produce news copy in a limited amount of time, because that’s been the case for well over a hundred years in the Western World. Never mind that readers, some of whom are marginally literate or totally illiterate, go for trash and flash, and could care less about elections and the fate of the world. The history of “news” and journalism in the United States has been checkered with crap, and it’s only getting worse.

Yes, the Penny Dreadfuls, warmongering powerful newspaper owners, conservative and liberal news outlets of every medium have continued the low tradition of the worst of American Journalism, but there’s a newer, scarier element involved. The teenagers and young adults of our country have developed a Why Not attitude that permeates almost everything in society. As parents we’re partially to blame, but who else? Why Not show disgusting behavior on reality shows, and look the other way when our kids imitate the rich and morally lacking?

American Society as a whole has begun developing a hard meanness towards the world, and it frightens me. From the beatings and bullying of gays and elderly, to people trolling online so small and lacking in character that they have to tear everyone down to their ugly size. We grow less and less horrified after seeing shocking news, more complacent about breaking rules that keep us civilized and just plain nice to be around. In essence, the glue that holds our society is being eroded by this Why Not attitude.

If our children learn it by being too lazy to compose an essay, and pay an online essay mill to do the work, cheating at tests, plagiarising Wiki, or other sources, it’s wrong. Stealing from others, whether it’s the written word or a necklace at Target, it’s wrong, and we need to reinforce these societal rules with our kids early and often. The celebrities they worship seem to have no bounds to depravity, stupidity, wealth, and ignorance, and American teens and young adults are swallowing the whole stinking mess whole.

When I read about writers who’ve gotten high-ranking jobs with prestigious news agencies, and I’m not even including Buzzfeed as a news agency, and are caught plagiarising, I wonder it if was a pattern that they’d begun early and kept doing it. This is why teachers are running plagiarism programs against high school and college students, and obviously news agencies of any worth will have to embrace it too.

Stealing news stories from rivals is old news, part of the seedier past of journalism in any country. Stealing information and news in this Brave New World has never been easier, never been as easily caught. The Why Not generation should be on their guard, and we’re responsible for enforcing that message.


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