Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

Roy Peter Clark comments on Merrill drama, a.k.a. “shooting a fly with a bazooka”

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Poynter has finally come up with a much awaited analysis of the drama around the non-attribution of another reporter’s work in a Missourian column by John C. Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Roy Peter Clark talks about the issue we wrangled with two weeks ago on the Mizzou Mafia listserv: does the word plagiarism apply to this particular incident?

Because the p-word is the scarlet letter of the literary world, because it is associated with a rogues gallery of writers and reporters, it should be reserved, in my opinion, for the most serious cases of malpractice.

I’m happy to say, Mr. Clark seems to share my opinion of what Mr. Merrill should and shouldn’t have done with the question.

There are two things I do not like about his column:
He should have dropped a quick attribution into the column (“as reported in The Maneater”). I’m not suggesting that not doing so was an ethical lapse, only that doing so would have shown respect to the student and the publication.
The column itself was a dinosaur cliché, the easiest kind of attack by a cranky old prof against the political correctness of gender studies. But that’s not unethical either.

But because he’s Roy Peter Clark, he doesn’t just wrangle with the question of whether the p-word applies; he answers it. He goes on to write…

Warhover has every right to develop standards for his staff that are tight to the point of strangulation. He can be the king of hyper-ethics if he wants to. But he has no more right to call Merrill’s actions plagiarism, than a prosecutor has the right to refer to reckless endangerment as murder in the first degree.

Um, did he, Mr. Clark? I actually went back to Tom’s column (FYI, Tom Warhover is the executive editor of the Columbia Missourian, with which I am affiliated, and was my professor for a while). It is to my knowledge the only piece he has published on the matter, but I might be wrong. In the Nov. 9 column when he announced the matter to the Missourian’s readers, Tom only talked of “using material from other publications without attribution.” The p-word appears just once in the column, in a quote from Mr. Merrill where he himself calls the mishap “unintentional plagiarism.” The word also appears in the header and the first sentence of a sidebar, which explains the Missourian’s “plagiarism policy,” taken straight from the Missourian syllabus. Remember, this is not just a community paper, it’s a journalism lab. With student writers, standards must be stringent. Excessive even.

Tom’s column also insisted on the fact that editors at the Missourian called the issue “a misdemeanor, not a felony,” a fact that seems to have been forgotten by many commentators. Funny they should use a legal metaphor; Mr. Clark goes on to argue in his own column that journalists should for once take a letter from the law and learn to make distinctions between minor and major offenses. I couldn’t agree more.

However, and maybe my Missourian bias is becoming apparent here, I would hate for a justified defense of Mr. Merrill to turn into an attack on Tom or the other editors at the paper. In another newsroom, Mr. Merrill’s lapse could have been handled with a slap on the wrist, maybe a temporary suspension. But when you’re asking 20-year-olds to work easily 20 hours a week or more for no pay, to constantly come up with original story ideas in an over-covered town, all the while maintaining stringent ethical and moral standards, you cannot hold their mentors to a lesser standard. You just can’t.

Minus that slight issue, I’ve enjoyed Mr. Clark’s column. He makes a distinction between morals, ethics and standards that would have made my high school philosophy professor proud. Like any Roy Peter Clark writing, it’s worth checking out.

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Written by Isabelle Roughol

Wednesday, 28 November, 2007 at 17:19

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