Stealing Words

Everyone agreed: The commencement speech at Boston University last spring was better than usual. The Dean of Communications delivered a penetrating critique of popular art and culture, and warned graduates against moral decline in America. Definitely better than the usual boilerplate. But a few weeks later it was discovered, to everyone's embarrassment, that a large section of the Dean's address was lifted almost verbatim from an article by another author. In short, the speech was plagiarized. The contradiction is so outrageous it's almost comical: Here is an academic charged with training the next generation of journalists--and he himself is guilty of journalism's cardinal sin: plagiarism. Here is an educator warning students about ethical decline--and in the very act of doing so, he himself is committing an ethical violation. That would be bad enough, but there's more. In reporting the event, the New York Times borrowed heavily from an article in the Boston Globe, without acknowledging the source. The Times plagiarized a report on plagiarism. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post came up with its own case of plagiarism, a story on its pages copied from the Miami Herald. It's beginning to sound like the children's book: This is the dog that chased the cat that killed the rat ... and on it goes. What's wrong with plagiarism? In simple moral terms, plagiarism is stealing. Stealing words, pilfering ideas. Taking someone else's intellectual property and claiming it as your own. And if writing is your job, plagiarism means getting paid for someone else's work. No wonder the Washington Post rule book calls it "one of journalism's unforgivable sins." The plagiarism epidemic is one more sign of a pervasive ethical malaise in American life. We've seen it in government, on Wall Street, and now in the media. This despite the fact that journalism ethics has become big business. Textbooks are written; conferences are held; courses are offered on college campuses. But all the talk hasn't injected much real ethical restraint into journalism. Why not? Because the professors who write the books and design the courses hold a faulty view of ethics. They don't view ethics as a set of universally binding principles. No, ethics is just a matter of private opinion that each individual works out for himself. You can see it in the very language journalists use. One media ethics textbook says it rejects what it calls "the imposing of moral principles" because "that short circuits the analytical process"--the process of analyzing for yourself what is moral. In other words, the textbook is saying we mustn't teach universally binding moral principles because that blocks the student's freedom to come up with his or her own ideas of right and wrong. Well, that's like putting a whisky bottle in front of an alcoholic so he can analyze for himself if it's right to drink it. Like the alcoholic, we all have an unlimited capacity for rationalization. We must constantly measure our actions against an objective, external set of standards--the Law of God. Otherwise, we easily slide into an ethical quagmire of self-interest and rationalization. Just like what we're seeing in the plagiarism plague in the media today.


Chuck Colson



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