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Ethics in an unethical online environment – the rise of copy-paste journalism.

August 19, 2020
The following article is part of the joint series ‘Ethics in Practice’ between Internews Europe and the Ethical Journalism Network, looking at the ethical challenges of journalism in the time of Covid-19

By Saoussen Ben Cheikh

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of journalism. There is a huge pressure to produce, but as journalists scramble to cover the impact of this global health crisis, they grapple with a bitter irony: demand for information is soaring, but the business model funding them is collapsing. This means most newsrooms face the irreconcilable dilemma of doing more with less. While some big publishers have seen a rise in paying subscribers, many have reported falling advertising revenues. Local media in low income countries, or those where freedom of expression is fragile, have suffered major losses with disruption of print and staff lay-offs. Maintaining high journalistic standards and ethics, in an industry forced to re-invent its business model presents an enormous challenge for free independent media.

“The 24-hour news cycle has long put massive pressure on newsrooms. That has only increased as funding pressures have grown, and risks us seeing a rise in copy paste journalism — which can exacerbate the spread of misinformation,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of the international media development organisation, Internews.

Plagiarism is widespread on the Arabic Net  

The free flow of information, powered by the internet, has not necessarily led to an increase in the production of original content. It is not just deliberate misinformation that is flourishing online: plagiarism, lack of verification, and other unethical journalistic practices have increased at an alarming rate.

Plagiarism is considered one of the primary sins of the profession, yet it is widespread, particularly in countries where intellectual property rights are not enforced. Now with the onslaught of financial constraints and restrictions on movement caused by Covid-19, the craft of journalism is further removed from the field and more content is being produced at the desk using second-hand information or copying-and-pasting without permission from, or payment, to the copyright holder.

It is particularly true with online Arabic language content. Despite a rapid increase in the number of Arabic-speaking internet users, Arabic remains one of the most under-represented languages online. According to estimates[1], less than 1% of total global online content is in Arabic, despite native Arabic speakers representing about 4.5% of the world population. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), “the world’s most difficult and dangerous region for journalists” according to the media freedom body Reporters Sans Frontieres[2], dictatorship, poverty and conflicts have hindered the creation of original content. Local independent media are under threat and lack capacity.

Internews provides training for media professionals to strengthen democracy and freedom of expression in the region and strengthen local voices but there is much to be done. Trust, journalism ethics and standards are low. Plagiarism is a common practice in the region. Information is commonly replicated without fact-checking and a mistake in the content can be quickly, widely repeated and spread. The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated this trend. Huge swathes of inaccurate information on the virus are copied and pasted without contextualisation or verification.

Plagiarism is tempting: “It’s just so easy and accessible”

The temptation to plagiarise is greater than ever because the internet has facilitated bad practices and unethical behaviour. It is easier today to create content by just clicking the mouse instead of using resources and skills. For better or worse, there are few barriers to entry. A plethora of local news websites have mushroomed and extensively copy-pasted content as their own – many journalists are now no longer even shocked to see their work reproduced as someone else’s on other platforms. As there is rarely any accountability there is a powerless perception that this is now the norm and that nothing can be done about it.

This “all is permitted” online attitude contradicts one of the fundamental principles of journalism, that of delivering trustworthy information. It reflects a deeper issue of lack of impunity and media regulation. Though copyright laws do exist in Arab countries, they are not sufficiently enforced or dissuasive. Usually journalists lack the resources to pursue copyright claims of what can be a complicated, lengthy and corrupt judicial process. Sometimes it is not even known who owns a news website or a social media account making it even more difficult to complain to and make them accountable.

Trust is the most sustainable journalism

If trust is the cornerstone of journalism, plagiarism breaks the ethical contract in which the reader trusts the author to provide quality trustworthy information. More broadly, it harms and undermines the whole media sector, supposed to hold the powerful to account.

Technology has been double-edged. It is a formidable opportunity to disseminate information to the masses. But it does not alone enable the creation of high-quality original content. The media industry needs support to produce quality, reliable content, especially in challenging contexts such as a global pandemic where growing numbers of people rely on the internet for potentially life-saving information. Upholding the highest ethical standards and professionalism is certainly the more sustainable way for the media to survive and thrive. But they can hardly do it alone. Media development organisations play a key role by bringing resources and voicing local issues globally. Internews supports freedom of expression around the world. To ensure local voices are heard during the pandemic, Internews has supported hundreds of journalists with a special Rapid Response Fund. In the MENA region, it works with local media across a wide range of journalism areas including ethics, with the creation of internal codes of conduct in newsrooms. In Syria, Internews has supported the adoption of an Ethical Charter for 20 Syrian Media in 2015 that aims to foster integrity and professionalism in reporting. But there is still more work to be done to ensure that media can play its crucial role of bringing accurate news and information to people in this COVID era characterised by uncertainty and fear.

Saoussen Ben Cheikh has worked extensively on humanitarian and Human rights programmes across the MENA region. She currently works for Internews, a media development organisation, as project director. In this capacity, she oversees a wide range of projects supporting freedom of expression in the most challenging contexts of conflict, poverty and repression, working with local media and civil society focusing on development, peace building, gender and youth participation. Saoussen was prior a PhD researcher on State and Conflict in the MENA region in the University of Nice (France).