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Since When Do Plagiarists Deserve Praise?

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When someone steals, it's not often they get called "a strong person," or told that they have guts (well, maybe these guys). It's rarer still for the thief to be called "courageous" by the person supposedly holding him accountable.

That's why it's so shocking to see to see an outpouring of support, some of it downright flattering, for a Toronto Star summer intern who wrote a confessional blog explaining how and why he plagiarized.

Posts like Ellison's don't feel honest to me. In fact they ring of the worst kind of self-promotion. Since when do people get a gold star for admitting they did something bad (and, in this case, not just bad but professionally dishonest)? Making amends need not include patting yourself on the back for doing so.

Marc Ellison sounds like an admirable guy on paper. He's a freelance photo and data journalist who, according to his website, has worked for many fine Canadian publications. He writes that he's "interested in bridging the disciplines of Journalism and IT," which frankly is something the industry needs more of.

It's a real shame that he plagiarized six paragraphs "in form and substance" from his own colleague.

We know plagiarism is wrong and why -- I'm not going to linger on that. I'm more interested in why Ellison himself and the Twittersphere at large seem to think he has done something praiseworthy.

At the outset of his mea culpa, Ellison compares himself to Steven Goff, a man who, out of guilt, recently confessed to having murdered his friend 23 years earlier. Except Goff walked himself down to a police station unprovoked and accepted responsibility for a cold case, damning himself to 30 years imprisonment.

Ellison was caught.

In trying to explain that he understands guilt, Ellison has actually made a murderer into the more sympathetic character. Not the humblest of openers.

Ironically, the theme of the whole blog post seems to be "confession." Ellison aligns himself with the concept, perhaps so that what naturally follows is absolution. Smart, but not fair. One Facebook comment I saw summed it up nicely: "Takes a strong person to admit to something that someone else had to call them out on."

Ellison goes on to admit that the plagiarism was committed knowingly -- "I knew what I was doing wasn't right, wasn't up to my usual journalistic standards." Not everyone comes right out and says "I was wrong," which is why so many seem to be enchanted with Ellison.

But there's a problem with the system when we're proud of someone admitting to lying because we so rarely hear the truth. One tweeter indicated they were pleased that Ellison admitted his mistake "because sometimes people don't."

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Perhaps said tweeter was reminiscing about Margaret Wente's own little plagiarism scandal, and her lacklustre explanation for it. Wente only came as close as saying "maaaaaybe I didn't quite attribute everything correctly," but never admitted to the dreaded "P" word. She wrote in the Globe and Mail:

"Some of the other allegations turn on the fact that I didn't name the exact source of every quote I used, that I used some of Prof. Paarlberg's explanatory material without attributing enough of it to him, and that I moved in and out of quoted material too freely."

Right. Plagiarism. Media Culpa blogger Carol Wainio laid it out plain and simple, and the Globe's public editor, Sylvia Stead, admitted "there appears to be some truth to the concerns."

Wente goes on to play the victim card, bemoaning the fact that Wainio seemed to have it out for her, implying not every columnist is under that level of scrutiny. Talk about a non-apology.

Maybe that tweeter was right -- when you put Ellison's response up next to Peggy's, he does end up looking like the lesser of two evils.

If Ellison is being painted as having integrity, what about all the honest journalists out there who, even when they're feeling tired, don't steal other people's work? I'm pretty sure we just call them "people doing their jobs," which doesn't have as nice of a ring to it.

Even Kathy English, the Toronto Star's Public Editor made note of the pressures journalists face in her editorial about the incident.

"At a time when newsrooms throughout North America must do more with less and are looking to those savvy digital journalists who bring new data and video skills to tell stories in new ways on many platforms, this gives pause for concern."

Certainly people make mistakes or have lapses of judgment -- no one is perfect. But the thing is, journalists aren't asked to be perfect, just honest and accurate. It's nice to show compassion when someone makes a mistake -- we've all hoped for compassion when we've been less than stellar human beings. But let us differentiate between someone deserving compassion and someone being called a stand up guy.

Ellison isn't brave or a hero, he's just another overworked journalist trying to make it in this business who did the one thing journalists aren't supposed to do. He doesn't need to be crucified for it -- I'm sure all this publicity is punishment enough, and this will surely leave a black mark on his resume -- but congratulated? Let's set the bar a little higher.