Thursday, August 30, 2012

What to Do When You Are Caught Plagiarizing

As strange as it seems to be a fan of a news magazine columnist, I have to say I'm a fan of Fareed Zakaria. I followed his columns when he was at Newsweek, and followed his career to Time and CNN. His writing style influenced the way I write prose on my blog posts, aiming for his balance of opinion backed up with solid statistics and research.

So it was a bit distressing to learn, from Zakaria himself on Facebook, that he had been caught lifting the words from another author's essay and passing them off as his own:

Fareed Zakaria
August 10 near New York, NY
Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, a version of which was posted here on Facebook, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere.

It's upsetting to learn that such a respected journalist had committed such a grim offense, but his sober response made it possible to both acknowledge the lapse and hold on to respect for the guy.

Now, compare this to Senator Tito Sotto's recent crisis of integrity, and the disastrous public relations catastrophe he continues to inflict upon himself. The offenses may be similar, but the resulting damage control response could not be more different. Short of using a time machine to fix the offense before it is commited, Zakaria's response is a shining example of the Right Thing to Do.

1. Acknowledge the mistake.

The evidence is out there, the world knows what you did. You simply cannot deny it at this point, you were caught. As embarassing as it may be, the best thing to do at this point would be to acknowledge it with as much directness and dignity as you can muster. And do it as soon as possible, lest you allow the internet to control the message and paint you as a dirty liar.

2. Apologize unreservedly

It may not be intentional, it may not even be illegal, but plagiarism is unmistakably wrong. Without skirting around the issue or making excuses for himself, Zakaria concisely said his apologies to everyone he possibly could. He apologized to the people employing him as a journalist. He apologized to the person he took the words from. He apologized to the people who listen and look up to him.

3. Shut up

After he made the Facebook post apologizing for the plagiarism, Zakaria's account suddenly fell quiet. He normally makes several posts per day, so the abrupt silence was evident-- but then again, after being caught in an act of dishonesty, a heavy dose of humility is required. The next post he made was a week later, announcing stoically that CNN was lifting his suspension. The next post was the following day saying that Time had done the same.

Only then did he return to his regular routine of several posts per day, imparting his wisdom to the world, his reputation strongly shaken but emerging stronger than ever before.

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