Tough Questions Asked as the Media Hits the News for All the Wrong Reasons
I wish I had a weekly media-review paper. This week's main feature would be, "Have journalism and the media been plunged into a credibility crisis?"
Recent events have raised questions about ethics, accuracy, the use of leaked documents, off-the-record briefings, copyright and intellectual property rights.
Accusations of plagiarism have been levelled at Darrel Bristow-Bovey, former columnist for leading publications in the Johnnic and Independent Newspapers groups, and Cynthia Vongai, editor of the South African edition of ELLE magazine, in relation to her former column, "Style Fax", in the Sowetan.
City Press alleged last week that Vongai plagiarised an article from the Internet site askmen.com. Bristow-Bovey is alleged to have plagiarised author Bill Bryson's work for his novel The Naked Bachelor and, for his columns in the Cape Times, British TV personality Jerem y Paxman's work.
Bristow-Bovey denies the allegations and attributes his actions to carelessness .
Readers, especially of Business Day, have asked that Bristow-Bovey's columns be reinstated. They say they cannot understand what the issues are or that if he has made a mistake, he should be forgiven.
His and Vongai's columns have been discontinued. Vongai has been suspended from her ELLE editorship pending an inquiry.
This is a sad moment for both writers, who are considered to be talented young professionals with significant followings.
Then there is the recent controversy over whether Bulelani Ngcuka, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, should have briefed black editors and allegedly sought their support in his row with Deputy President Jacob Zuma. Senior Sunday Times reporter Ranjeni Munusamy was suspended after she leaked a story to City Press about allegations that Ngcuka was an apartheid spy. Ngcuka has threatened to sue.
Sunday Times editor Mathatha Tsedu took the unusual step last weekend of writing a front-page editorial explaining why his paper had not run the story. Questions of credibility and accuracy were central in his explanation.
For its part, the Sowetan announced in an editorial that it was discontinuing Vongai's column because "Sowetan prides itself on its editorial integrity and will not be party to its readers being misled".
Editorial integrity is a term that encompasses ethical norms such as accuracy, balance and impartiality, as well as respect for the published ideas of others. It also refers to rigorous checking during the editorial process. Copyright and intellectual property laws protect the published ideas and creativity of others.
Journalists must have editorial integrity for their reports to have credibility with the public. Without it, the truthfulness of reports is compromised. Truthfulness, in turn, is a must because the products of journalism and the media are a resource for citizens, which they use to make critical decisions in their lives.
Central to the controversy surrounding Vongai and Bristow-Bovey is just what plagiarism is and how it is related to editorial integrity and credibility. It is true to some extent that, in journalism and creative work, there is no idea or view that is completely original to one person. That makes allegations of plagiarism appear to be spurious purism.
That appears to be the main defence by the supporters of Bristow-Bovey.
It is, however, also true that even if great men and women think alike, they cannot write exactly alike. In other words, we can think the same thoughts but cannot express them the same way, word for word, sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph.
That is particularly the case if the second person who is writing the same thoughts or ideas has been exposed to, or is aware of, the writings of a person who published the same ideas and thoughts earlier. That is the critical test that Bristow-Bovey and Vongai face. If the allegations are true, then they have published other people's ideas as their own, breaching norms of editorial integrity and raising questions of credibility.
The allegations of plagiarism facing Bristow-Bovey and Vongai raise a broader question about the thoroughness with which checking is done in the editorial process. In both cases, the articles passed through the system and reached the public. While the editors have commendably taken action by withdrawing the columns, there is still a question about how this could happen. Are checks stringent enough?
It is important that all journalists and editors reflect on these questions if they are to continue enjoying credibility with the public.
Professor Kupe is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies Programme at Wits University
With acknowledgements to Tawana Kupe and the Sunday Times.