When Is It Plagiarism? : NPR Public Editor NPR ran a story about the cliche of cell phones and horror flicks. It was similiar to a popular YouTube video, and some accused NPR of plagiarism.
NPR logo When Is It Plagiarism?

When Is It Plagiarism?

When it comes to attribution, the rules for on-air and print are fairly clear --  give credit for anything that isn’t yours.

But the rules are fuzzier for the Web, where it's easier to lose control of your material. Anyone can upload someone else's YouTube video or copy from a website.

A recent example involved a story on Morning Edition, entitled “In Horror Flicks, the Cell Phone Always Dies First.

To some, the piece appeared to have plagiarized Rich Juzwiak’s September 2009 YouTube video montage of horror flicks where cell phones are rendered useless just when they are needed most. "No Signal" has more than 314,000 views.


Video by Rich Juzwiak, who blogs at fourfour.typepad.com. Strong Language Advisory.

The NPR piece wasn’t direct plagiarism as much as it was a case of NPR failing to give enough credit to Juzwiak, a VH1 blogger and horror film fan, who spent untold hours crafting together scenes from dozens of horror movies.

The story behind the story plays out as a modern day Internet drama – including a Twitter fight. The lesson being, above all, NPR should be generous in giving credit or attribution for someone else’s work.

The idea that cell phones fail just as the killer nears has become a cliché and by definition, not original, particularly among horror fans. It’s the latest version of the cut phone cord or no dial tone.

Film critic Beth Accomando from KPBS in San Diego, is a horror movie aficionado. Last summer, she says, she suggested a piece to NPR on cell phones dying during horror flicks.

Accomando said the cliché is so pervasive that Juzwiak cannot claim ownership. “If you were to rack up 10 recent horror movies,” said Accomando, “at least 5 of them would have a cell phone scene.”

Accomando’s 4-minute story ran May 5. At the end, in what's called a "back-announce," host Rene Montagne added: “And you can see all the ways filmmakers kill off cell phones, in a video montage at our website: NPR.org.”

This was a reference to Juzwiak’s 5-minute video, which appeared on npr.org alongside Accomando’s story. But no direct credit was given to Juzwiak, leaving the incorrect impression that NPR created the video.

Why that happened goes back to attribution. The Web team that assembled the page were counting on the frame with Juzwiak's Web address at the end of the video, to be sufficient attribution, said Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news.

It’s not, since it assumes everyone will watch all 5 minutes.

Attribution should come early – not at the end of a long piece or in a way that obscures the author's true identity. It’s almost impossible to go wrong by giving others credit if you rely on their work. When you use someone else’s work and put your name on it, that’s plagiarism.

Later that day, Juzwiak posted a piece on his blog, asking, “This is Plagiarism, Right?

The next day, a listener email arrived accusing Accomando of stealizing from Juzwiak.

“Then all of us zoomed in on the video,” said Stencel. “We were pretty confident it was not plagiarism but agreed the video was under credited.”

But adding Juzwiak’s name to the video caption on npr.org didn’t satisfy him.

Twitter exchange between Juzwiak and Accomando:

Juzwiak(@songsstuck): Great job re-purposing my work! I hope you didn't spend too much time transcribing. http://tinyurl.com/38xkmgb 10:49 PM May 5th via web

Accomando(@cinebeth):Did u use Human Centipede & 2012? Did u write copy 4 clips? Sorry ur upset . Ur video is up on NPR. Just used some same clips. 2:36 AM May 6th

Accomando(@cinebeth): P.S. my original script mentioned ur video but my editor cut reference out. but ur not 1st to notice cell phone disabling. 2:43 AM May 6th

Juzwiak(@songsstuck): No, I was just your researcher, I guess. Based on your work, your response does not surprise me. CLASSLESS. 9:03 AM May 6th


“There are bound to be similarities when you cover the same subject,” Juzwiak told me. “But I felt it was just entirely too similar. It’s not a coincidence if she used the exact same clips to make the same points I made. I categorized the clips: service out, battery dead, cell fails or breaks, and she did that too.”

NPR's Sara Sarasohn, who edited Accomando’s piece, said that organizing the clips in that order was done because it made the most sense.

Later on a Twitter fight began between Accomando and Juzwiak. With interest raised among Juzwiak's Twitter followers, people began contacting our office. Salon also weighed in.

On May 6, Stencel called Juzwiak. They debated over whether Accomando had stolen his work. Stencel said the idea was not original and of course, she’d have to use some of the same clips.

Juzwiak didn’t buy it.

“What about ‘The Roost’?” he asked, noting that the movie was so obscure it’s unlikely Accomando knew about it.

Stencel did some research and Sarasohn talked with Accomando. She said the only clips she used directly from his montage were from “The Roost” and “Disturbia.”

“At one point in the script, I had mentioned the online video,” said Accomando. “I didn’t know who made it, but I said, ‘'The cliche is so prevalent that someone has even created a YouTube tribute to the obligatory cell dying scene.” ' [It's easy to find. Click on Richfofo on his YouTube video and it links to his site.]

But that reference was cut because the first script was too long.

"Sara was unaware of the sourcing for use of the "Roost" clip while working on the story," said Laura Bertran, Arts supervising editor.

NPR editors agree Juzwiak deserves credit for finding the obscure clip from “The Roost.”

“If our editors had realized the extent to which his video had helped Beth in identifying and collecting clips in the radio piece, we would have given it all due credit,” Stencel said.

To rectify things, NPR put a correction above the online version of Accomando’s story, an editor’s note at the bottom and an on-air correction May 7 during Morning Edition.

“So that’s nice and fair,” wrote Juzwiak on his blog. “We’re all figuring out this media stuff together.”

So what’s the lesson in all this? Most importantly, be generous in attribution on the Web. Better communication between editor and reporter about sources is also necessary.

As Juzwiak noted, this is a brave new world and all of us in the media are trying to figure out the new rules for the Web.

“I still think it’s fuzzy plagiarism,” said Juzwiak. “It seems like there should be a new word for it.”