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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Plagiarism

BuzzFeed seeks to shape, improve ethical standards for new media

Last week, BuzzFeed released a statement publicizing the ethical standards they expect for their reporting and storytelling as a new media outlet.

Characterizing the announcement as a “first attempt” at outlining their objectives of “merging the best of traditional media’s values with a true openness to the deep shifts in the forms of media and communication,” the BuzzFeed editorial team hopes to position themselves at the forefront for new and online media ethics.

Last summer, headlines documenting BuzzFeed’s firing of politics reporter Benny Johnson for plagiarism triggered a series of op-eds and columns arguing what constitutes as plagiarism for new media and whether or not the same standards that apply to old school print journalism were applicable.

“There’s a difference between crappy, lazy Internet writing and real plagiarism and I contend that when you start calling the first thing the second thing, you belittle the seriousness of real plagiarism,” Gene Weingarten wrote in a column for The Washington Post.

Politico’s Dylan Byers argued that the sort of plagiarism Johnson was accused of simply went with the territory of working for a website that both conglomerated and generated entertaining and shareable online content.

“Foraging the Internet for photos, videos and .gifs and turning those into entertaining lists with clever captions that will go viral is, for many BuzzFeed employees, the job description,” Byers wrote in the Politico piece.

In an apology letter written by BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith,  Johnson’s plagiarism was characterized as a “breach of our fundamental responsibility.”

“Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader,” Smith wrote.

BuzzFeed’s recent statement on ethics does not define plagiarism as specific to new media or old school journalism, but is particular to computer use.

“To plagiarize is to trick the reader. Nothing may be copied, pasted, and passed off as one’s own work, including press releases,” Shani Hilton, BuzzFeed’s Executive Director, wrote in the statement.

Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin saw more traditional media ethic similarities than the creation of new media ethics in Buzzfeed’s statement.

“BuzzFeed’s ethical standards look like those upheld by many journalism organizations, with a few twists,” Mullin wrote.


Comedian Daniel Tosh calls out ESPN for plagiarism… with a bit of his own

ESPN recently faced scrutiny for what appears to be a direct lift of a segment from a comedian’s show on Comedy Central.

ESPN recently began airing a new segment, titled “Awesome Video Segment,” and the very first one they produced reminded a lot of people of comedian Daniel Tosh’s segment called “Web Redemption” featured on his popular Comedy Central Show, Tosh.0. Tosh himself found the segment to be extremely similar, and decided to address the issue on his show.

While Tosh’s assessment of ESPN may be crude and immature to some people, when showing the comparisons between ESPN’s segment and his own, it becomes readily apparent that the two segments were similar well beyond coincidence.

On Tosh’s version of the feature, he finds an online video of someone doing something embarrassing or something that gets them injured or in trouble in some way, and interviews them about it and usually leads into a comedic bit where he asks them if they’re willing to, “give it another shot.”

ESPN’s first installment of their version of the feature looks nearly like an exact copy of Tosh’s. It opened with embarrassing video of someone doing something where they hurt themselves, moved next to an interview with the subject, which then led to the reporter offering up the exact question Tosh always asks: “Are you willing to give it another shot?”

The similarities between the two led Tosh to mock ESPN on his own show, parodying the popular “Sports Science” segment featured frequently on ESPNs flagship program, Sportscenter. Tosh, in his criticism of the network, isn’t shy in letting it be known what he thinks of them: “I’m fine with kids in high school or college plagiarizing, but once you work for a real network you should have some God damn self respect.”

The off-color remark resonated with some people around the Internet, with commentaries from the blogosphere claiming that Tosh has “ethered” ESPN or “goes off on ESPN for stealing his segment.”

While numerous outlets have reported the story, ESPN has since commented on the matter, telling TMZ Sports:

This was more of an instance of us using a common phrase than it was copying his wording. We know that doesn’t sound like the strongest explanation yet it’s the truth. We are looking forward to ‘giving it another shot’ in future installments of ‘The Awesome Video Segment.’

ESPN has continued the “Awesome Video Segment,” though it looks very different from the very first one cited in Tosh’s criticism. Their second segment recaps a touchdown scored by a massive lineman in a recent college football game, which as any football fan knows, rarely happens. It seems that ESPN is trying its hardest to distance itself from the first segment of the “Awesome Video Segment,” as the video of it cannot be found on ESPNs website, unlike the second segment.

There is no denying the similarities between the two segments. While Tosh has no real legitimate claim over the content and format or his segment, to mst viewers it looks like ESPN borrowed heavily from the comedian’s work. ESPN assertion that the similarities may have just happened by coincidence rings hollow.

The combination of the fact that the structure of “Awesome Video Segment” was changed heavily from the first segment to the second, as well as the fact that the video seemingly doesn’t exist on any ESPN-related platform online, seem to suggest that the first video would like to be forgotten. We’ll have to see if ESPN does seemingly ‘give it another shot,’ and borrow from Tosh in the future.

Campaign season raises ethical issues of press access, plagiarism and fairness

As candidates enter the last month of campaigning in this election season, seemingly perennial ethical issues between journalists and candidates as well as between candidates themselves are once again presenting themselves around the country.

One need look no further than our local Wisconsin media this week to find charges of credentialed journalists being denied access to campaign events.  Meanwhile, charges of plagiarism between candidates regarding their own political communication materials are being thrown back and forth.

This week, a credentialed reporter from Wisconsin Reporter, the state level bureau for, was barred from a campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke that featured First Lady Michelle Obama. is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and operates as a collection of local, independent journalism dedicated to in-depth and investigative governmental reporting, primarily in small and mid-size markets.

According to the Wisconsin Reporter, the journalist was denied access by Wisconsin Democratic Party communication director Melissa Baldauff because the online publication isn’t a legitimate news source, after initially saying the decision was made based on space limitations.

“Well, you’re not the press though, so, thanks,” Baldauff said, according to Adam Tobias of the Wisconsin Reporter.

In fact, the Wisconsin Reporter has been credentialed by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board to cover legislative sessions at the statehouse for the past several years.

This decision by the Burke campaign came on the heels of another incident of press restriction in Milwaukee when Burke’s staff tried to block reporters from talking to crowd members Sept. 29 in Milwaukee.

The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the UW-Madison Center for journalism Ethics each expressed disappointment in the Burke campaign’s actions.

Robert Drechsel, a journalism professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and director the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics, told Wisconsin Reporter he can’t comprehend why the Burke campaign would bar certain media from Tuesday’s campaign rally, especially after the negative attention created at the Milwaukee event.

“I think it’s a very unfortunate thing,” Drechsel said. “It’s certainly not the call I would make.”

In addition to skirmishes between media organizations and candidates, inter-campaign charges of plagiarism have been tossed back and forth.

Dee J. Hall, writing for the The Wisconsin State Journal, reports that campaigns for incumbent Republican candidates Gov. Scott Walker  and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch are both claiming ownership of the phrase “Wisconsin is open for business.”  Walker used it in his 2011 inaugural address, although Kleefisch claims on her website she is “widely credited” for the phrase.  Hall goes on to report the phrase has been used by former Gov. Jim Doyle, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and agencies in several other states.

This “whose line is it anyway” exchange comes shortly after the Walker campaign criticized competitor Mary Burke for plagiarism because campaign communications used phrases that also appeared in materials for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in other states.  Burke blames the common phraseology on a consultant who repurposed some well-crafted lines without telling the Burke campaign.

Speaking with Hall, Michael Wagner, UW-Madison assistant professor of journalism and political science, said he would not call either Burke’s re-use of language or the common claim of ownership over “Wisconsin is open for business” as plagiarism.

“What Gov. Walker and Burke have done is called practicing politics. It is certainly unimaginative, but that’s not a crime nor is it an ethical violation.”

Read Hall’s article here.

Read Wisconsin Reporter’s article here.