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Chris Roper is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Mail & Guardian. He is currently a Senior Knight Fellow at the International Center for Journalists, and the data editor for ICFJ’s Code for Africa (CfAfrica) data journalism initiative in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania.
Memeburn recently broke news that Skye Grove, a prominent member of the South African Instagram community, had been caught out plagiarising other people’s images. Over a number of years Grove, a communications professional, had taken and edited other people’s photos before posting them as her own on Instagram. She went on to sell some of those images, profiting from the deception. The incident raises several interesting questions.
For readers, the most interesting one might be “why”. Why would someone plagiarise in a digital era, when the corollary of easy accessibility to material to plagiarise is the fact that it’s much, much easier to spot plagiarism now than in the pre-digital era? Is it hubris, desperation, arrogance, or stupidity?
But that’s not a question I’m going to attempt to answer, as it’s the least interesting to me. But if you are determined to answer it, I would recommend some actual journalism — and that would involve an actual interview with Grove.
The really interesting questions are: how does this incident relate to ethics in journalism, ethics in social media, and the erosion of traditional media values because of the proliferation of untrained digital media practitioners?
You’ll notice that I’m terming this an incident, not a scandal. Scandal is a word designed to appeal to the Twitoteuse, and Twitoteuse is a neologism I’m coining to denote those who represent the hysterical voice of social media, always calling for retribution, public shaming, and a sort of social media death penalty. It’s a concatenation of Twitter and Tricoteuse. Tricoteuse is French for ‘a knitting woman’, and, according to Wikipedia (see how easy it is to avoid plagiarising), “the term is most often used in its historical sense as a nickname for the women who sat beside the guillotine during public executions in Paris in the French Revolution, supposedly continuing to knit in between executions.”
Is an Instagram account journalism? Is social media journalism? The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is, it can be. If you’re in the business of transmitting information about news or events, and expect a degree of trust from the recipients of your message, then you are straying into the area of journalism.
Equally, if you are an Instagrammer making money off your work, and operating as a brand, integrity and honesty is expected of you. This is the moral economy that gives value to communications, and it’s essential to building a relationship between the consumer of content and the producer.
One of the great things about the proliferation of citizen journalists is that it erodes some of the institutional inertia and elitism of traditional media. One of the bad things, though, is that traditional media are (mostly) trained in the ethics of journalism, and have a publishing filter system that keeps them honest. Social media seldom has that, and relies on a crowd-sourced fact checking, which can be erratic.
If we look at recent allegations of plagiarism in South Africa, they’re fairly thin on the ground. The last big plagiarism story was probably way back in 2003, when columnist Darrel Bristow-Bovey and Elle editor Cynthia Vongai were caught out lifting sections of text from other authors. More recently, we’ve had Helen Zille accusing a Cape Times journalist of plagiarising an article about Foetal Alchohol Syndrome. Another accusation was levelled against Gillian Schutte in 2013 for a post she authored on Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader blogging platform (Thanks to @materialpasts for reminding us of this.).
Section 2.8 of the South African Press Code is short and sweet: “Journalists shall not plagiarise.” But plagiarism is just the most obvious indicator of a laxness creeping into South African media, where stories are sometimes cobbled together haphazardly (I can’t recall how many Press Ombud-mandated corrections I’ve seen from the Sunday Times recently, for example), and many publications are so biased towards the echelons of power, be they government or business, that it’s frankly embarrassing.
This is why the Memeburn Skye Grove expose is important. Plagiarism is just the poster boy (or girl) for bad journalism. What this story does is show that there are still checks and balances out there and, vitally, these come from the readers and users themselves, rather than an increasingly compromised media. Defenders of Grove are using the tried and tested political gambit of claiming a ‘smear campaign’.
The truth is, many great exposes of political and business corruption have originated with whistleblowers whose motives have sometimes been personal. That doesn’t invalidate the importance of the expose, of course, and its value to ordinary citizens. Social media doesn’t have the safety net of institutional ethical knowledge, and it’s up to the people who use it to be its watchdog.