This week on the Blogging Angels podcast we tackled plagiarism – again. Why? Because last week a twitstorm of epic proportions hit the mom blogging world when a mom blogger and Babble writer, Kristin Ruiz, was exposed as a plagiarist. She had lifted entire posts from another mom blogger, Amy Storch who writes at Amalah, and passed them off as her own. She was promptly fired from Babble, but the fury this unleashed on all sides was intense and got quite personal. And her defense was that she was only 27 years-old.
Plagiarism isn’t murky. It’s stealing. I spent a great deal of time this year when my daughters entered 4th Grade and began their first research projects teaching them the difference between copying text word for work and taking notes for research that will then become your own thoughts and support your original thesis. When so many images and texts pop up with just a Google search and “copy and paste” is as simple as 2 clicks on the keyboard it can be easy to remember that this is stealing. You may get all the content you want for “free” but ownership does not transfer to you the reader. If 9 nine year-olds can understand that concept then grown women, and men, should have no problem either.
But mom bloggers aren’t the only ones suffering from lying. The uncovering of Mike Daisey‘s Apple story, which aired on This American Life, as an exaggerated tale led to a retraction and endless media coverage. Ironically though, that story resulted in many real investigations of conditions at the plants where Apple and many other electronic companies manufacture their products. It’s all pretty complicated. This idea of “creative” non-fiction writers is nothing new. And Mike Daisey is defending himself as a “performer” not a journalist. In other words, it was a piece of theater, not the New York Times (hello, Jayson Blair.)
Where does artistic license end and lying begin? For some that line is clear – juicing up a bit of a story to make it more interesting and engaging, versus making up facts that corrupt the entire validity of a story. For others, obviously, there is no difference – it’s all one big story and the embellished means are justified by the powerful end. From Stephen Fry to John D’Agata this non-fiction fiction has been discussed. Even the famous New York Magazine article, Tribal Rights of Saturday Night, that spawned the movie Saturday Night Fever, was exposed as being almost entirely made up. Tony Manero, main character played by John Travolta in the film, never really existed. It gives me pause every time I read a great long form piece of non-fiction journalism.
I wonder if there should be a new category – the non-fictionish essay. It’s the story the way we wished it had happened, just don’t use it in a court of law or call yourself a journalist. Or a blogger either for that matter.