Plagiarism!

The story is now breaking that the Elorza campaign issued a letter from Jorge Elorza that contains a section admitting a past crime that is in fact almost a carbon copy of a 2012 letter issued by the James Diossa campaign during his successful run for Mayor of Central Falls. Ironically, in attempting to be ethical, the Elorza campaign committed a breach of ethics.

The statement from the Elorza campaign is that this because a “former advisor helped our campaign write the first draft of this letter, and this same advisor had also worked on James Diossa’s letter…” There’s no reason not to believe this. Whoever the advisor was, they cut a corner, and it’s coming out now.

There’s a lot to unpack in this event. There’s the way that GoLocalProv, which fumbled the ball earlier in the day with a widely-criticized headline claiming that Elorza had “failed to disclose” his shoplifting charge despite the existence of the letter and numerous Elorza speeches about the incident, fell on its ass into this scandal. Its earlier shoddy journalism forced closer inspection of a months-old letter, and required someone who had read both the letters and remembered the phrasing in the earlier one and could point out the plagiarism.

Now, let’s talk about the way the media portrays the event. Here’s the headlines from various news organizations:

All of these are from different organizations with different goals, and at different times. But three out of four assign blame somewhere. This is the reality of the culture of American media and writing, which rarely allows even the semblance of passive voice to exist (folks love their constantly-erroneous Strunk and White). But more crucial is where the blame is assigned. GoLocalProv assigns it to Elorza himself. WPRI to the Elorza campaign. And RIPR assigns it to the ex-advisor.

The problem with assigning the blame here is that readers enter into the article with a frame of view in mind. You read the GoLocalProv article with the assumption that Elorza plagiarized the letter. The WPRI article gives the impression it was his campaign. If you read the RIPR article, you’re assuming it’s this ex-advisor. The problem is everyone is right here, but they’re also wrong.

People received the letter from the Elorza campaign, but his name it was on it, and it was written in a voice that appeared to be his. However, it was not written by him in its entirety, and the plagiarized section was an advisor’s self-plagiarism (which is totally a thing). The advisor’s at fault for the plagiarism, they decided it’d be easier to make a few cosmetic changes to language they’d already written, rather than write something new and genuine (as a writer and communications person, this is particularly abhorrent to me).

Should the campaign have caught it? This becomes more debatable. Elorza is running for a city with a population just under one fifth of the total of Rhode Island. Diossa ran for a city with one-tenth of Providence’s population. The likelihood that anyone on the Elorza campaign saw and remembered the Diossa letter is low. Campaign staff are not teachers, they are not dumping everything they get into Google to check for plagiarism. When you hire someone, you should have a reasonable expectation that the work they produce is theirs and that it’s original. Everyone missed this plagiarism until the issue was brought up again. Voters, journalists, all the other campaigns. If everyone else missed it, should the campaign have seen it?

How will voters perceive this? Well, depending on what source they read, they’ll be primed in different ways. For instance, the readers of the AP article are going to have a different perspective from the readers of the other articles, who are likely to blame one of the three; Elorza himself, his campaign, or the ex-advisor. But because it’s difficult to parse out who exactly is to blame for this, media needs to be careful about how they’re priming readers. Ultimately, we really just want to set up the facts and allow readers to form their own opinions.

Now, how to get past this? Honestly, I think it’s incumbent on the ex-advisor. The Elorza campaign is declining to name them due protect this person’s career. While that’s admirable on the part of the campaign, the advisor really needs to step up and own their mistake. First, their shoddy work harmed a client’s election prospects. Second, anyone who currently works for the Elorza campaign is going to be tarred with this brush and have to explain this in the future. So they’re harming the career prospects of all of the Elorza campaign staffers as well. And third, it’s the right thing to do.

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One comment

  1. I agree with all that. Now can you write something about why ProJo doesn’t put a byline on AP stories? I couldn’t find a byline anywhere, and with that, is that AP’s headline, or ProJo’s?

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