Are standards different between journalism and talk radio when it comes to plagiarism?
The public doesn't differentiate between the various media. They assume the standards apply across the board, says Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and manager of Religion News.
An ad hoc committee investigating the plagiarism of a Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land seemed to suggest so.
"Though the source citation standards prevailing among talk radio shows are different from those applicable to journalistic work or to scholarly work in the academic setting, we nevertheless agree with Dr. Land that he could, and should, do a better job in this area," read an Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission press release.
The plagiarism controversy erupted when Aaron Weaver, a Baptist blogger and Baylor University doctoral student, discovered ERLC president Land had used on his March 31 radio show unattributed material from a Washington Times column by Jeffery Kuhner.
Weaver accused Land of plagiarism and later found another instance from the radio show of what he called plagiarism.
Land subsequently apologized for not providing "appropriate verbal attributions," and an ERLC press release on April 18 sought to diffuse the controversy.
EthicsDaily.com asked the ad hoc committee for a reference asserting that ethical standards for talk radio differed from other forms of journalism.
The committee clarified its language saying in part: "Our statement in that sentence was meant to focus on the standard practices in the talk radio setting as compared to the other settings, instead of the related, but slightly different, question about what legal, ethical or other rule-based standards apply. This is reflected in the fact that we said, 'source citation standards prevailing among talk radio shows'" (emphasis in original).
Brian Kaylor, assistant professor of communications studies at James Madison University, said, "The ERLC's focus on what is instead of what ought to be is a troubling standard for the expectations for the SBC's top ethicist."
Determining the appropriate standards for Land's show is the goal of the ad hoc committee. Their clarification continued:
"[O]ur investigation will require determining what set of standards (i.e., rules) apply in the broadcast realm and also whether they were violated by Dr. Land. It may be, as you suggest, that the rules concerning whether and when one cites quoted material, and whether permission must be obtained to use the quoted material, are the same whether the forum for the quotation is a radio talk show, a sermon, an article in a newspaper, or in scholarly research. We are not yet prepared to answer that question, but we are looking into it."
Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and manager of Religion News, LLC, told EthicsDaily.com that the public doesn't differentiate between the various media; rather, they assume the standards apply across the board.
Mason recommended the set of standards drawn up by the Society of Professional Journalists. She called the standards "comprehensive" and said they had industry-wide acceptance.
The departure from the high standards did not surprise Kaylor, who is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.
"It seems sadly fitting since Land's behavior on the radio program has often been more closely tied to the gospel of Rush Limbaugh than the teachings of Jesus Christ," said Kaylor.
"For years, Land has employed a haughty attitude, crude name-calling and partisan talking points as he evolved into a typical talk show host," said Kaylor. "While such behaviors might be acceptable to pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill Maher, Southern Baptists should expect a higher ethical standard for its leaders."
The ad hoc committee investigating Land's plagiarism said it expected to complete its work before the SBC's annual meeting in June and present a report to the agency's executive committee.
Greg Horton is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of philosophy and humanities. He lives in Oklahoma City.