A few weeks ago, I was sitting in front of a young man inside a restaurant in Anamangar who had recently been discredited and condemned for some of his ‘unforgivable’ professional lapses. For more than an hour, with a keen sense of observation characteristic of an alien anthropologist, I was there facing a native outcast, listening to the narratives of his meteoric rise in the profession only to be faced with a sudden fall.
I had asked Ashish Luintel if I could see him in person, so I could confront him directly for a very candid conversation over what actually happened in a recent, widely publicized case of plagiarism that rocked the Kantipur daily newspaper. I had followed the case in which Luintel was accused of copying a series of columns from The New York Times and later found guilty of the journalistic code violation by the newspaper´s own investigation panel.
Through the unfolding of this episode, I was somehow less interested in the chronology and the details of the ethical breach and more in the psychology of a ‘serial plagiarist’ from our own country. After many years of numerous unreported, or totally ignored cases of plagiarism, Luintel suddenly seemed to offer everyone a compelling focus on the issue.
There is the tradition in many countries among journalism critics or researchers to compile and update plagiarism cases and controversies, profiling the accused or the guilty so that important lessons can be learnt from past failures. For example, in America, professionals can access these controversies as part of ‘case studies’ designed by experts to help in journalists’ ethical decision making or mapping problems. The ethical initiation of a reporter joining or working for The Washington Post must naturally start with the knowledge about the fictitious feature story ‘Jimmy’s World’ (Sept 28, 1980), a classic case of fabrication by the newspaper’s reporter Janet Cook. The New York Times boasts of similar treasure troves in ethical lessons, including the infamous Jayson Blair case in 2003.
The recent case from Nepal, like several others in the past, forced many in the profession and general public to reflect on media ethics again. Here, we had one of our own newspapers offering us something similar to the lessons learnt by the ‘big boys’ in the news business abroad. It highlighted not only ethical impropriety but also came attached with a distinct human face, something easy to relate to.
Hence, rather than simply condemning the incident or writing a commentary on it, I decided to meet Luintel. I thought I could perhaps read between the lines. Call it esoteric, but I had a certain degree of academic interest in pursuing one of our own Cooks or Blairs.
It was my first meeting with any publicly branded ‘plagiarist.’ He is only a boy, I thought, as I saw the 23-year-old, with a lean frame. Nonetheless, his case resonates with many in his age group, who today form the bulk of the reporting staff in our media. He began by listing several cases of what he called ‘ditto copy’, that he wrote which eventually led to his downfall this February, “Twenty three months and 18 days after joining the newspaper,” as he put it. He seemed straightforward, energetic and articulate.
Did you know what you were doing when you were copying others’ work? I asked, because plagiarism, a widespread blemish in our journalism, academia, and literary circles, is not simply a question of if, when or how.
That and a few other probing questions helped me re-examine some of my own notions or assumptions about our widespread culture of plagiarism or fabrication in creative fields.
Luintel first heard the term ‘plagiarism’ from his English teacher in college. He had copied a book review from a senior “dai”, verbatim. The teacher found out about it and muttered out the word, saying that an exact copy is unethical and unacceptable. However, the teacher was forgiving enough to give him a second chance by assigning him another book to review.
But there is no room for such kindness in the competitive, professional world. If the audience are discerning and demanding enough, it becomes even more difficult for media houses to remain insensitive to such cases. Luintel himself believes that had it not been for the widespread adverse feedback from social media users, he would have not been asked “to take leave.”
The hazy understanding of what constitutes “plagiarism” adds to the dilemma and confusion of journalists today. What happens if you cite a famous quote here and another statistic there without attributing it to the original source? This is a routine occurrence in the media now. Entire stories have been copied and republished under fake names. Sometimes editors are able to spot this breach and reject the pieces. A few years ago, one of my own commentaries I wrote for an online publication was published verbatim in an English language national daily.
As for Luintel, he regrets not giving credit to the New York Times, but not because it was plagiarism, because “it was not ditto.” So are we to believe that it was simply a problem of definition? If that is the case, there clearly is need for a serious debate on what constitutes plagiarism in our context.
EVERYBODY DOES IT
Nepali television and radio stations lift materials from websites. They ‘cut and paste’ photos and visual materials from the Internet, often without any credit. While these examples should not be an excuse for Luintel and others like him to steal others’ work, or even parts of them without proper attribution, we cannot ignore how many young professionals are today left to make decisions themselves without institutional guidance or mentoring from senior staff members.
Without adequate knowledge in research techniques, novice journalists are prone to misrepresenting facts, misinterpreting findings or simply ‘copy-pasting’ them.
The ‘fexible’ nature of the journalism unlike other professions comes with added burdens; they often rely on idiosyncratic or personal judgments about important issues. We still have many who confuse journalism with literary work of fiction. Luintel told me he never really considered himself a journalist; he was recruited on the strength of writing a few columns because the editor simply loved his style. With a background in engineering, he never received any training in journalism and hardly covered any events for news. Although he suspects he wrote over a hundred stories during his tenure with Kantipur, he divided his time between his debut broadcast shows and writing articles on technology.
Luintel said it was after the plagiarism incident that he realized that he was a journalist and it was indeed a serious profession — something we get to hear from veterans in the field.
DOS AND DON’TS
One area that remains largely undeveloped in our context is the ‘how-to’ genre of journalism. Luintel’s experiment with technology review or his flirtation with technical journalism may also be responsible for his nemesis. Without adequate knowledge in research techniques to absorb materials from experts, there is always the danger of novice journalists misrepresenting facts, misinterpreting findings or simply copy-pasting them.
With proper support and guidance, novice journalists could invent and nurture new ways of practicing journalism. Unfortunately, many lose their creative energies and vision for glamour in the field. Luintel is no exception. A couple of times during our meeting he regretted writing on high-end gadgets and lifestyle instead of focusing on the real issues of the pre-dominantly rural country.
This incident should have led to a deeper self-introspection in the media about how not to let such acts repeat themselves. There is no answer to Luinte’s question of why just him, when there are many others doing the same thing every single day. A generational shift appears to be underway in our understanding of journalistic values, shaped by effortless access to new media and the diversity of information it offers.