We are all plagiarists now

The digital revolution is spreading writers and journalists thin, and changing our attitudes about authorship.

Your favourite evening news anchor is guilty of plagiarism. He has been for years. Each night he greedily plucks somebody else’s lines from his teleprompter, convinces us they’re his own, and invites us back again tomorrow to join in the theatre, the deception, that all television entails. Would you tolerate this kind of behaviour from your favourite print journalist?

Defining plagiarism in our age of re-tweets and perpetual remixing is tricky business. Where does one draw the line? As Simon Houpt writes in the Globe and Mail, “These days, plenty of journalists represent others’ work as their own.” CNN host and author Fareed Zakaria affirms he was innocently copying hand written notes when he inserted lines written by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker into his own story on gun control for Time Magazine. Overworked author and science journalist Jonah Lehrer admitted to recycling anecdotes for The Wall Street JournalThe GuardianThe Boston GlobeThe New Yorker and Wired, and later, to fabricating quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan in his bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works – a less forgivable offence for which The New Yorker accepted his resignation.

But plagiarism existed long before the Internet; long before even the printing press. Then what, you may ask, is so remarkable about it these days? For one, the pressure to churn out “content” fit to publish in every corner of the ever expanding digital universe is spreading writers and journalists thin. Demand for original content is record high at a time when newsrooms are more strapped for resources than ever.

But there’s a less examined shift taking place: Our attitudes toward authorship are changing. Zakaria and Lehrer are brands unto themselves – and therein lay the seeds of their undoing. As Houpt notes, their work was fuelled as much by self-marketing as journalistic principles. It’s this work ethic that allows today’s writers to hire assistants to produce their blogs, mind their twitter feeds and curate their Facebook pages without so much as a blush. When the writer becomes the brand, the purpose and meaning of authorship changes.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we’re all content creators now; all micro-brands unto ourselves. We live in an age of the “ubiquitous remix,” as Andrew Keen calls it. Despite their tremendous creative potential, content sharing, cross-linking, remixing and reassembling have complicated the practice of citing original sources and, depending on how we define authorship, made unwitting plagiarists of us all; your favourite evening news anchor included.