It's been a rough couple of weeks for Johann Hari, an award-winning British journo and writer who contributes to the Independent and the Huff Post. Hari has been accused of plagiarism for taking other people's quotes or quotes from books and integrating them into his own interviews. There have been numerous stories and posts detailing how Hari has regularly quoted words his interviewees have said or written in other places.
Hari defended himself and said that he has done this because there have been times when the people he has interviewed haven't had perfect English and the transcribed answers looked garbled.
When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn't their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible. The quotes are always accurate representations of their words, inserted into the interview at the point where they made substantively the same argument using similar but less clear language. I did not and never have taken words from another context and twisted them to mean something different – I only ever substituted clearer expressions of the same sentiment, so the reader knew what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words.
When I was stringing for a wire in Timor-Leste, the English-language quotes I got from Timorese people were occasionally "confusing on the page", although you could usually see what they meant. When this happened and I included a quote like this in a story, my editor would reply back that in these instances it's acceptable to "tidy the quote up" somewhat, not changing the meaning, but just making it more readable. At no point would I ever have taken a quote from another source and passed it off as my own. So it's with that in mind that I find it hard to accept Johann Hari's explanation of what he did.
What kind of example does it set to aspiring journalists? Hari himself has admitted that he did something "idiotic" and public opinion is largely against him, but throughout his trial by Twitter I don't feel like there has been explanation of why what he did was wrong and why other journalists shouldn't do it. Hari himself could really have used this as an opportunity to educate other, younger journalists on acceptable practices.