Saving the Stories: Plagiarism at the New York Times

March 20, 2014, 12:20 AM   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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When Samantha Grant was five years old, she would fall asleep to the sound of her father banging away on his typewriter. As a writer for Time magazine, he frequently pulled all-nighters; she was convinced that was not the life she wanted.

“As I got older, I was compelled to tell stories in every way but journalism,” Grant remembers. “I tried fiction. Songwriting. Ultimately, I relented. I realized there was no way I was getting out of this so I may as well embrace it.”

When she was a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, Grant was seeking a topic for her thesis film. In a class on law and ethics of journalism, she was reminded of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal that had recently struck the New York Times. It was a prime opportunity to share the complicated story of a very compelling character.

“Journalism is near and dear to my heart,” Grant says. “I wanted to show that Jayson Blair is not a typical journalist. He is not an example of anything but himself.”

Production of “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times” began three years after the scandal was revealed. At the time of the scandal, the digital transition of the media world was just beginning. Tech-savvy Blair took advantage of the transition by pulling together bits and pieces of other journalists’ stories, then filling in the blanks with fabrications. Details about places he had been, things he had seen and people with whom he had spoken were all spun, while he never left his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

In the seven years it took Grant to complete “A Fragile Trust,” editors evolved with the new media era. While some say it is much easier to plagiarize these days, the flip side is that it is also much easier to catch.

“Different types of software can now be used to check writing for plagiarism,” says Grant. “However, plagiarism is not something that is happening that often. It is not the norm.”

Even though her film reveals flaws in one of the biggest journalism institutions in the country, Grant is still a strong supporter of the news media.

“In this era where anyone can publish, which is a great thing,” she says, “I don’t think independent journalists will ever replace institutional journalism. These institutions have the ability to take on other big institutions like major corporations or the government. Consumers need to support them by reading them, sharing them and donating to them now more than ever.”

Amy Kersey

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Related Screenings:
03/20/14 @ 9:00 PM – A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair
03/27/14 @ 9:45 PM – A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair
03/28/14 @ 4:15 PM – A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair

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