A Conversation with Reality Hunger 2: Trial by Google

“Because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence. Trial by Google.”

–Malcolm Gladwell, Annals of Culture, as quoted by David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

When I was younger, I remember coming upon a disclaimer accompanying some translations of I forget what, rather similar to that oft-repeated disclaimer about fiction about its lack of deliberate resemblance to persons living or dead. “Any similarity to other translations is entirely coincidental.” Really? my fifteen-year-old self scoffed. They’re translations of the same text. If they didn’t bear some resemblance to each other, I’d wonder whose translator had fallen asleep on the job. You can’t really call it coincidence.

While I know from experience that journalism doesn’t work entirely the same way, it comes fairly close. Instead of a text, it translates events; yes, there are differences via perspective, voice and level of knowledge, but it all boils down to a lot of people trying to get to the truth behind the same matter. The quote above is led into by Gladwell talking about being sent to ‘match’ a big story—the content, that was all right, that was journalism, but if he were to match the sentences? No. Plagiarism. Bad journalist. No cookie.

And yet the content is the same. Any resemblance between these stories, save for the fact that they are translations of the event with a whole lot more wiggle room between them, is coincidental.

Then there’s the question of who, without bringing in Google itself, can actually tell who, if anyone, is copying whom, or if they aren’t—expectations throw people off. In my sophomore year of high school, for instance, one of our assignments was a “newspaper” covering major events from the last twenty years or so (I think) in different regions of eastern Asia. My group was covering China and Japan, so I plugged my way through some encyclopedia articles and came out with two decent newsy-sounding stories. A few days after my group turned in the paper, our teacher got up to talk to the class. About plagiarism. And read the first couple of sentences of my piece on Minamata disease, then asked the students if they thought it had actually been written by, well, a student. To my high-school aesthetics, that sentence had been a masterpiece of journalistic hyperbole. My classmates apparently agreed, because to a student they concluded it had been plagiarized. (At least, until he told them who wrote it.) Reasonable—except for one little detail. We had done all our work in the library, out of whatever encyclopedias and odd textbooks had been around to glean information from, and my source was a rather dry encyclopedia of historical events, written by someone whom I’m pretty sure would rather have collapsed on the spot than used journalistic hyperbole at all. Context matters.

I’m still not entirely sure how to completely get around the issue of not sounding like someone else by sheer accident, aside from reading all the other sources so thoroughly you’re going out of your way to anti-copy. There are facts, after all, and the facts need to be stated. There is perspective—but not too far, Heaven forbid you have an agenda. What’s left? Careful phrasing of sentences. Checking over the other sources to make sure that pretty phrase you found wasn’t stuck in your mind from one of their pieces (even if you really can’t think of any better way to say it). Possibly even looking for signs that you aren’t plagiarizing yourself—I once spent half an hour trying to figure out why a line I’d just penned, “There are none alive who would travel to the ends of the earth for a cardboard cutout”, was giving me such deja vu. Certainly, the two posts I wrote for RPG Blog Carnival came after an hour or two of reading every single preceding post in hopes of not stepping on anyone’s toes.

But I still wonder—how can one be sure of passing the trial by Google?

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