Op-Ed: ACCURACY AND TRUTHFULNESS ON THE INTERNET By Laura McBride

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The Writer’s Weekly article about copyright infringement put me in mind of a few times it has been done to me, and, as well, the problems created by non-journalists using the Internet without benefit of instruction.

The first time someone copied my work was about 25 years ago and it was, believe it or not, a large, national publication. They were cagey, though. They simply took my article about bloodhounds and used it paragraph for paragraph, but substituting a different trainer and different dogs’ names. It was so very cunning, and totally immune to reasonable prosecution, which I’m certain they knew. No freelancer has the money to take a large publication to court and then have to prove they engaged in the dance they did.

The second time was about ten years later, and again, it concerned animals. Another writer lifted entire sections of an article of mine about hunter-jumpers and passed it off as her own. I wrote to the publication and didn’t hear a word from the editor. But I did get a letter of apology from the writer in which, at the end, she said she hoped I would be amenable to being interviewed by her in the future if she needed equine information. If she thought that would mollify me, she was wrong.

I currently have a friend who came to writing not by way of journalism but via another profession. He writes for a blog and consistently puts up photos the use of which is an obvious copyright violation. I have, naturally, mentioned this. But those whose living does not come from the written word or unique image have no clue, apparently, what this is all about.

That is almost understandable (although of course doctors can easily prosecute anyone who attempts to horn in on their territory without credentials…hmmm…) But those who write for a living or run blogs or any sort of website on which original material is intended to be published (words or images) are simply being willfully unethical. Or not. It seems that there has been so much crossover between journalism and public relations, via the ubiquitous “mass communications” degree, that even those who should know better, don’t. Recently, a man on a blog I read claimed he knew all about what was real and what was not because of his degree in public relations. This told me only one thing: Either that man is terminally dense, or his professors did not clearly elucidate the differences between P.R. and news.

Although my academic degrees are in English Lit. and journalism, I have worked the P.R. side of the street on occasion, but never while working as a journalist, exactly. I was editor of a farming magazine for eleven completely miserable months in the 1990s. When I was hired by the company that owned the magazine and used it to promote its own products and agricultural ideals, I asked them to agree that I would open the pages to alternative ag (I did), and I would never, ever write or put my name on a tobacco story, although I understood that it was part of their core business and that I would have to edit such stories. They agreed to that, also. But then they nattered and nattered and nattered about my writing a tobacco story. I quit.

I decided a sponsored publication was no place for a journalist; there are too many occasions in which the line between promotion and journalism are blurred. And there was no room for personal ethics and, in the case of that magazine, I’m sorry to say, apparently none for business ethics, either.

So here’s the thing: When journalism and P.R. are so contiguous that even those with firm groundings in either or both run into opportunities for crossover, what chance does accuracy and truthfulness have on the Internet, when everyone on earth, quite literally, is able to post anything about anyone or anything at any time for any reason? Should there be a license required for posting anything except comments on news items/letters to the editor? And if so, how ever would one enforce compliance? And who would enforce compliance? I am a firm believer in Internet freedom. And yet, I worry about the further dumbing down of a population that is no longer taught even basic discernment skills in school, being force-fed facts and no concepts in the teach-to-test atmosphere. Some people are willfully gullible; others are so because they have no tools to be otherwise. And some, of course, are simply lazy or crooked or both.

However, now that I’m living in England, I have a whole other set of challenges, such as their most draconian libel laws, laws that make America’s look positively freewheeling, to consider. I think I can only write about animals here, and then, only those that bear no physical relationship to/symbolic representation of an actual human, or I’m likely to be taken to the cleaners, even if I decide to write fiction and not journalism.

Laura Harrison McBride has written on a variety of subjects from cooking to equine sports to traveling, with side trips into agricultural editing/writing and theatre reviews, during a long career as a journalist during which she has also written 14 non-fiction books for major publishers. Currently living in southwest England, she has recently been accepted in the British Society of Authors, and is currently working on guides to southwest England and a series of pre-teen fiction stories featuring her happy dog, Brownie, who is delighted to now be a British mutt and trek across Dartmoor and swim in the English Channel. McBride also lives with her very British husband, and her very American cat. (Cats don’t change their nationality; C-A-T is paramount.)