There is a disturbing trend on some content sites that could leave writers, and the site owners, open to accusations of plagiarism. It is the act of rewriting and paraphrasing stories that appear on genuine news websites, such as Fox News, where working journalists have gathered the facts and presented them as a news story.
These content writers then ‘research’ these stories and rewrite them as a news item for the content sites. There is no more involvement with the story than that – just rewriting. These writers – we should not call them journalists – do no interviews and have no contact with the people involved, such as the police, the victims, the action groups or any other person or body involved. Nor do they find a new angle on the story – they simply rehash the angles that have already been published in the press. The re-writers have no way of verifying the accuracy of the details, or whether someone feels they were misrepresented or misquoted, other than referencing the published news stories.
It all comes under the somewhat nebulous heading of ‘citizen journalism’, which appears to mean that anyone can report on anything without actually being a journalist – similar to ‘citizen arrest’, where a perpetrator can be detained by non-law enforcement citizens until the real police get to the scene. This has its problems, too, since it can lead to charges of unlawful detention. Why? Because people make mistakes. Law enforcement has to investigate and get the facts – so do journalists.
Let’s take an example of how it all works in a real news office. On the way to work, a journalist working for a local newspaper spots some bloodstains near a local hotel. The journalist has already done several stories on violence at this hotel and this looks like another one. On arriving at work, she contacts the police, and is told there was an incident there the previous night. A person was stabbed and taken to the hospital. There are no more details at the moment, but the police spokesperson will keep the journalist informed of developments. While this is happening, the journalist grabs a notebook, and heads out to get some more information, going straight to the hotel and following any leads.
By late morning, the police have an official statement. With a deadline looming at midday, the journalist puts the story together from everything she has learned. She checks some statements given with the police – for example one person may have stated that three people were involved in the brawl, while the police said they were looking for only one other person of interest (POI). Are they aware another person might have been involved? The police may say no, and add that to their own evidence, or yes, but that person was just an innocent bystander and has been cleared. Still, it means more work for the journalist, trying to follow up on this new lead.
By deadline, the story is as ready as it is going to be, and makes the front page. It’s not an exclusive though – a journalist on another newspaper in town has been following the same story, following his own leads and doing his own interviews. Because the story is a good one, it is then picked up by the Metropolitan press, who accordingly pursue it in their own way, talking to police, interviewing those involved and so on. One thing a working journalist does not do is simply ‘rewrite’ the story from a report that appeared in another newspaper, although if both papers are working for the same company, they own the copyright and the second may simply reprint the original story with the original byline.
There are good reasons for this. Suppose journalist A had done all the legwork, but had omitted to check the possibility of a third party with the police, instead simply publishing the name of the person who was said to be involved. Then journalist B, instead of doing his own research, simply rewrote Journalist A’s story for his own front page, including the unsubstantiated report of a third person involved. Then the Metros pick it up, and rewrite the original story again, incorporating the original error and perhaps adding a few of their own. Only the lawyers would be happy – litigation Heaven!
News reporting is not the old “Telephone” game from grade school. It is actual work. It is gathering the facts, interviewing the people involved and making sure, every step of the way, that you have everything right. Now let’s look at another scenario. After all this work, someone writing for a content website comes along and takes your story, rewrites it ‘in their own style’, and puts it on a website. There is no research, no contacting you to ask permission to do this, and no new angle. The content writer in fact does no work at all, just takes the facts you have gathered and rephrases them so as not to be accused of plagiarism.
What do you do? You accuse them of plagiarism, that’s what! This is all your hard work, all your research and interviews, being ‘paraphrased’ by someone who does not even have the initiative to call the police in the area to get some of the information themselves. What is even more galling is that these content writers do this for a payment of only $2 or $3. That is why they do no legwork or research themselves – the pay wouldn’t be worth it. The real journalist has already done all that, so all the rewriter has to do to earn a couple of bucks is ‘rewrite’ and ‘rephrase’ in ‘their own style’.
I would urge all content writers to avoid writing ‘news stories’ for content sites like the plague. The risks are too great, both of passing on errors in reporting, and being sued for plagiarism, to say nothing of the damage to your reputation when accusations of your illegal deeds are published online.
I know what it takes to write a real news story because I have worked as a journalist. The story above is true. It was how that incident was handled by myself and the reporter on the other newspaper in town. That was journalism with integrity – this new trend on content sites is NOT journalism, citizen or otherwise.
Gail Kavanagh is a freelance writer and former journalist living in Queensland Australia. Gail’s writing has appeared online and in print publications such as Dollar Stretcher, Arabella, Sam’s Dot Martian Wave and Illumin, and the anthologies Changing Course and Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen. As a journalist, she interviewed Charley Pride, Gene Pitney and Russell Crowe, among others. She is retired but continues to freelance part time. You can read more about Gail at: .