When the Wall Street Journal retracted one of its online stories earlier this month because it was “plagiarized from several publications,” journalism geeks and bloggers clamored furiously about ethics and accuracy, the future of newspapers and, of course, WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp.
Admittedly, we were part of the fury. It turns out that the Wall Street Journal piece in question, “Homeward Bound” by Mona Sarika, was largely plagiarized from an article we had written for Little India magazine in June 2009.When we joined the fray, we were prepared to talk ethics and responsibility. But we weren’t prepared for one especially provocative notion that arose: Was there something about Sarika’s Indian-ness that made her more prone to plagiarize?
It seemed like an absurd question not even worth dignifying with a response … until the umpteenth time someone asked, “Don’t Indians have a different cultural understanding of plagiarism?” What started as an effort to research the roots of this question turned into the discovery that across the blogosphere, Sarika has become a poster child for prejudices against immigration and minority advancement in the United States.
While the story of Sarika’s plagiarism is no longer big news, conversations around journalistic integrity wage on with one noticeably absent voice. Mona Sarika remains a mystery; no one can reach her for comment, and all we know about her is that she’s a graduate student from India. With no other information to go on, Sarika’s nationality has become the default scapegoat for her behavior.
But let’s back up for a second. Could it be that Sarika didn’t know she was plagiarizing? After all, universities say that international students often have a different cultural understanding of plagiarism. Maybe she’s just the product of the Indian educational system, which supposedly values rote memorization over creative thinking, right?
Well, that seems like a tough pill to swallow for a few reasons, including the stature of the publications for which Sarika was writing (Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post) and the countless other Indian-born journalists who are an indispensable part of the American media and know how to play by the rules. Sarika knew what she was doing. She didn’t just copy and paste words; she distorted them and changed source names, which shows a level of manipulation above naïve copying.
But this is where things get hairy. In an era when such people as Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs are given soapboxes for their xenophobic rants, Sarika’s straightforward case of intentional plagiarism is somehow being manipulated into a cautionary tale of why immigrants can’t be trusted to do “American” jobs.
The not-so-surprising reality is that plagiarism crosses color, gender and cultural lines. You may have heard of a young black reporter at the New York Times named Jayson K. Blair, or the New Republic’s former rising-star writer Stephen Glass, who grew up in a Jewish family. It’s hard to forget Indian-American Kaavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student whose debut novel was pulled from the shelves after charges of plagiarism surfaced. And of course, there are the controversial cases of Roots author Alex Haley and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
It’s a long list. And it’s every writer’s worst nightmare. There can also be excruciating shades of gray, when unintentional borrowing takes an ugly turn into the land of plagiarism – when innocently cherry-picking information turns into enough copying to make a dozen cherry pies. But the representation of people of color in high-profile plagiarism cases – and the suggestion that their race or ethnicity is somehow to blame – speaks more to stereotypes than to any cultural or racial predispositions to being “cheaters.”
When Glass was caught fabricating stories and sources, there was little mention of his race or background. The same could not be said for Blair, whose acceptance into a New York Times program for young minority journalists was heavily scrutinized. The color of his skin was undoubtedly part of the discussions surrounding the scandal; critics blamed affirmative action for the entire debacle.
What makes these now infamous plagiarizers so compelling, be they Glass, Sarika or Blair, is that they seem to have an extraordinary level of access to certain people or communities. The New York Times was seduced by Blair’s supposedly insider perspective on the D.C. sniper case, while the New Republic couldn’t get enough of Glass’s ability to get (almost) unbelievable quotes from elusive sources.
In Sarika’s case , even though it has been notoriously difficult for journalists to get Indian H-1B workers to speak on the record about their situations, it apparently took a while for anyone to question the validity of her surprisingly candid sources and interviews.
Our goal isn’t to defend Sarika as an Indian writer, nor is it to throw her or any one publication to the wolves for her plagiarism. But it’s important to move the conversation away from her nationality or ethnicity toward a bigger conversation about ethics and responsibility in journalism. Plagiarism, it turns out, is colorblind, and the debate around it should be as well.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American community issues and cultural trends. Amy Bhatt is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington who researches gender, family and immigration issues in the South Asian community.