Home > Micro, perverse incentives > Socially destructive journalistic incentives

Socially destructive journalistic incentives

I learned this yesterday (I’ve been too busy to notice in real-time) that Fareed Zakaria has been suspended from Time/CNN following an allegation of plagiarism.   I ask: Did Fareed do anything wrong?

The allegation is entirely true–the evidence is damning and at any rate he has admitted wrongdoing–so there is no use claiming innocence.   Still, with so many plagiarism scandals out, it bears asking; is this journalistic-plagiarism aversion at all helpful or is it in fact harmful?

I’ll break up the problem into several questions:

  1. What, for society as a whole, is the purpose of journalism?
  2. What incentives do penalties for plagiarism induce for reporters?
  3. Do these incentives further or hinder the goal identified in (1)?

What is the purpose of journalism?

Journalism holds a very privileged position in the US Constitution.   Alone among professions it has protected status; a journalist has rights–and obligations–that soldiers, scientists, politicians–and any other profession you might care to name–simply do not have.  Why?

I turn to mic over to Mr. Thomas Jefferson:

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost


The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter

Journalists inform the people, and you cannot have a functioning democracy with an ignorant public.   And so we as a society grant vast leeway to journalists so that they may inform the rest of us–without that, Jefferson believes, there could be no democracy.

What incentives do anti-plagiarism induce?

What do journalists seem to want?   To me it seems that they would like to be the first to report on the news of the day.   The first to report gets the credit.

I think its pretty clear that anti-plagiarism reinforces this bias.   After all, not every viewer is watching the news 24/7, so journalists who source other journalists will get more viewers, personally, if they have a reputation for fast, accurate reporting.   All else equal, relatively inattentive viewers will be more likely to miss important stories if it takes longer for those stories to come on air.   So there is a small social value in reporting news quickly and accurately.

This social benefit of reporting is, I think, fully internalized by the news market, but I claim there is an unpriced externality as well.

Plagiarism levels the playing field between reporters.   It takes time to research a story, generally, so a journalist who sources another journalist (thus saving time on research) has an advantage over a journalist who sources from original material.   There is a free-rider problem and norms/rules against plagiarism defend against it.    There’s no reason, however, to think that the news market doesn’t price this externality.   The mere fact that there is a norm in the news industry against the practice suggests that it is not.

News suppliers, after all, do not wish for their material to be “pilfered” and these suppliers are in a repeated game with one another.   In this sort of situation, the folk theorem tells us that cooperation (i.e. anti-plagiarism norms) can be sustained by a simple punishment strategy.   That is to say that the market will endogenously solve the free-rider problem in this case.

Do anti-plagiarism norms further or hinder the social purpose of news?

This really boils down to the question of whether it is truly socially valuable to be first.   Anti-plagiarism rewards those who come out first with the news.    Conversely, plagiarism is a mechanism for free-riding on the research of others.   So is the social benefit helped or harmed?

This question, I think is easily answered by looking at cases where the precise timing, but not content of the news would be known–such as the Supreme Court ruling on the PPACA.   This I think is a true natural experiment–although others may disagree.    Essentially, Fox News and CNN–the two mammoths of TV news–both reported the story wrong because they both tried to report the story before reading the actual decision.   The race to be first destroyed value–viewers would be better served waiting ten minutes for an accurate story than being given inaccurate information immediately.

In short, the public was less-well-informed for this reporting than if the story had not been reported at all.

Clearly, the race to be the first decreased the accuracy of reporting in exchange for a small advantage in time; competition works!–even when it is destroying value.   It seems to me that this is not even evidence of a zero-sum game, the competition resulted in negative value overall–the social purpose Jefferson thought so important is no where to be seen.

There is a trade-off between time and accuracy.   When time is rewarded, accuracy suffers; yet the social value of time is minuscule while the social value of accuracy is great.   This is the externality to be concerned about–the market is doing a fine job rewarding time, while it should be rewarding accuracy.

Ironically, accuracy is likely improved by plagiarism.   Have you ever played the rumor game?   That’s when everyone sits in a circle and one person starts a rumor, which goes around the room to come back to the beginning.   The “fun” thing is that the rumor that comes back is very different than the original.   Each person in the circle adds some error onto the original rumor until the whole is simply gibberish.   Well, when reporters use others for information, but do not copy it exactly, they are playing the rumor game.

Keeping the aggregate level of research among reporters constant; allowing plagiarism would increase accuracy and likely improve the average time-to-air for a typical story.

(I will grant that incentive to do original research is improved by anti-plagiarism norms, but it seems to me that are other mechanisms available to encourage that.   At any rate, that’s not an issue with Fareed’s case, since he was writing an op-ed.   Which also informs the public but is not a research piece.)

So the anti-plagiarism norm likely does more harm than good.   Perhaps its time to stop this crusade.

Categories: Micro, perverse incentives
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