Buzzfeed and the Admission Office: One Plagiarist’s Case Study

Vol. 13 No. 9

admissions eletter Vol13 No9 hashtagCheatin

As an Admission Officer, you’re asked to wear many different hats—one of them requires that you create original content for your various marketing initiatives. The demand for original content grows with each passing year, requiring dedication and consistent publishing. The temptation to “borrow” an idea or the turn of phrase from another article, thus saving you time to devote to other things, can be strong. Should you not cite or annotate properly, however, you could be held to the same standards as former Buzzfeed “viral politics” editor, Benny Johnson.

What Happened

In an effort to keep up with the vast amount of content Buzzfeed required, Johnson copied various articles word-for-word, as well as paraphrasing other ideas without including proper citation. Two anonymous Twitter users began to point out these instances of plagiarism in Johnson’s work. After an internal review, this eventually resulted in Johnson’s being fired from Buzzfeed.

In a public apology to its readers, Buzzfeed’s head editors pointed out that when the website began seven years ago, it wasn’t trying to be a formal news site. As such, “[its] writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism.” Yet, despite his lack of a journalist’s training, Johnson was held to a journalist’s standards.

Johnson’s case demonstrates that ignorance will not protect you or your school should you unwittingly copy someone else’s ideas. Understanding the many forms of plagiarism—and how to properly cite your sources—is crucial as you implement any content-creation strategy. We’ll go over how, exactly, Johnson plagiarized his content, and how you can still adopt online resources for your content without crossing the line from resource to plagiarist.

Examples of Plagiarism

Copying an article word-for-word—even just a sentence or two—is the easiest form of plagiarism to spot. The two Twitter whistleblowers, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, listed instances of direct plagiarism from Johnson’s Buzzfeed work, including occasions when he ripped whole phrases from Wikipedia articles and presented the information as his own.

However, Johnson’s plagiarism wasn’t always so easily spotted. He rephrased sentences and reorganized entire paragraphs from the original work—or he cited the original source without mentioning the article from which he personally found the information, as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort wrote in an earlier blog post.

He’d use quotation marks that indicated he was quoting from another source without ever mentioning that source, or change a few phrases to differentiate it from the original. “About half” in one original article became “50% chance,” for example, and “Electric power is spotty and erratic” was rephrased as “Electric power would only last a few hours, if you received it at all” in Johnson’s version.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Ultimately, much of what Johnson plagiarized could have been rendered acceptable had he chosen to cite his original sources of information. In fact, Buzzfeed itself still hosts the 41 articles Johnson wrote that contained stolen material, carefully modified to give proper attribution to the original authors.

If you find yourself drawing from external sources for your school’s blog or other communications, remember to give credit where credit’s due—even if you reorganize the information or paraphrase the content in your own words.

According to the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students, journalists—and bloggers—must do the following to avoid plagiarizing original sources on which they base their articles or posts:

  • Paraphrase the content AND state the original sources;
  • Credit another person’s ideas or theories; and/or
  • Cite any facts that are not commonly known.

The linked page above offers several examples of acceptable paraphrasing and outright plagiarism, explaining the difference between them all. Basically, you must write your articles in such a way that do not “trick” readers into thinking you were the original source of information or interviews when you’re drawing from a different source. Again, to quote from the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students, this includes:

  • Incorporating quotes in such a way as to make the reader believe you performed an interview, when you’re lifting the quotes from an original source;
  • Technical descriptions that may initially seem to have no suitable synonyms or comparable turns of phrase; and
  • Failing to cite “obscure facts.” (In the example from the handbook, one plagiarized example includes information about newspaper inches. Such industry knowledge would not have been considered “common knowledge,” and so failure to cite the original source counts as plagiarism. “Common knowledge” would be something like “The Great Depression started in 1929 with the crash of the U.S. stock market,” or “The colors of the English flag are white, blue, and red.”)

Similar rules apply for pictures and graphics found online. Legally, you can’t copy and paste images to use for your own commercial purposes, even for a blog or presentation. Online does not equal free. That said, U.S. copyright and fair use laws do allow for some snippets of material and pictures to be used for educational purposes only. (Official school communications and external projects like blogs would not qualify for this exemption.)

So, if you choose to incorporate external information in your blog posts and various marketing materials, remember to cite your original sources and include linkbacks to the web pages on which the material can be found. In a small way, linking to the original source “repays” the content creators from which you found material twofold:

  1. Search engine bots consider pages and materials with more external links to be more trustworthy, thus ranking the original source higher in search results than it may have otherwise.
  2. By linking to the sources on your own article, you potentially help drive some of your own audience to their websites, boosting their visibility.

Blogs and other content-creation strategies are excellent ways to drive interest and applications in your school—and you can still repurpose content you find online to save time and resources. Just remember Benny Johnson’s folly and cite your sources, and you’ll save yourself a world of headache—professionally and legally.

Additional ISM resources:
Research: The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools
ISM Monthly Update for School Heads Vol. 9 No. 4 The Pressure on High School Students to Build Their Resume ... Whose Best Interest Is It?
ISM Monthly Update for Division Heads Vol. 6 No. 9 Forget Swine Flu—It's Senioritis!

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 39 No. 6 The Wise Use of Your School's Disciplinary Data

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