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NPR Shares Without Asking Permission

There was a rather interesting brouhaha at your favorite station, NPR, that's worth taking a quick look at today. Sorry, this doesn't involve the liberal bias so many of you hear in their reporting (and thank you for the continuing e-mails on this subject). Instead, this is about possible plagiarizing.

As the Internet continues to become the go-to place for news, hi-jinx and information, plagiarism (stealing somebody else's work and calling it your own) has positively flourished.

In this case, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard types the play-by-play of what could have been an Abbott and Costello routine she called a case of 'accidental plagiarism' at the station three weeks ago.

Long story short, on May 5, NPR ran a lighthearted piece on its Morning Edition show illustrating how cell phones seem to always fail just as they are needed most -- or when the villain is closing in for the kill. It was titled "In Horror Flicks, the Cell Phone Always Dies First."

I actually heard this one, and thought it pretty clever at the time. Well, it turns out the piece sounded a lot like a popular YouTube video put together by Rich Juzwiak called "No Signal" last year.

Now, whether the idea for the failing cell phone was Juzwiak's alone is ripe for debate (he believes NPR stole his idea). He also argued that Beth Accomando who did the piece for NPR borrowed heavily from his video. Again, this one isn't so black and white.

Accomando is adamant that the work was entirely her own. It turns out she actually did refer to the video -- though not by name [sigh] -- in her original clip, but it was subsequently cut by an editor.

Got that? Well, you are excused if that's all a bit tricky to cut through.

What comes next seems pretty clear to me:

As Morning Edition host Rene Montagne was ending the May 5 spot she teased listeners to a video on NPR's website for more on the story -- including Juzwiak's video, which ran alongside NPR's story on the site.

Juzwiak, of course, is not an NPR staffer. The video was his original work. NPR never mentioned this on the air or on their website, instead relying on people to watch the entire five-minute video to see Juzwiak's credit at the end.

It was thought this was proper attribution for Juzwiak's work. As Shepard typed, "It's not, since it assumes everyone will watch all 5 minutes."

I'd add it wasn't even close to proper.

While Shepard doesn't think there was "direct plagiarism" involved in this case, she does type, rightfully, that "... above all, NPR should be generous in giving credit or attribution for someone else's work."

After much to-ing and fro-ing between Juzwiak and the station, NPR did its best to make up for the gaffe(s) by putting a correction on the online version of its original story, an editor's note at the bottom of the story, and even went out with an on-air correction two days later.

In the wake of this 'accident' I suppose that's all that could be done. I'd even venture a guess that Juzwiak's video has gone viral with all the added attention, though Shepard gives us the impression he is still not completely satisfied.

But I want to address another concern here, and if you are a younger reader, or not a fan of the traditional media outlets, you might not like it.

I have big concerns with the younger generation and/or the news breed who work on the websites at these various media outlets and call themselves journalists. Many of them aren't.

These are mostly folks who were either raised online or gravitated to it, and are not properly versed or trained in the tenets of journalism. They have come to believe that stealing somebody else's work on the Internet is simply a case of, ahem, "sharing."

As Shepard types early in her piece:

"When it comes to attribution, the rules for on-air and print are fairly clear -- give credit for anything that isn't yours. But the rules are fuzzier for the Web, where it's easier to lose control of your material. Anyone can upload someone else's YouTube video or copy from a website."

Er, how about "anyone" who isn't a reputable journalist?

Sorry, but I find it inexcusable that nobody thought it prudent to make good and sure Juzwiak was credited prominently for his video. Frankly, it would have been appropriate for the station to contact Juzwiak before using the video as just plain courtesy.

Say what you will about NPR, but they are a venerable, well-heeled media outlet. That their web staff could make such a grievous error is inexcusable to me.

As more and more information flows recklessly across the Internet, and more and more people alleging themselves to be journalists "share" it, it's safe to say we haven't seen the last of this nonsense.

It's only a matter of time before the lawyers start getting involved both feet first. That's when all the fun will end -- but quick.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)