Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sounding profound by quoting someone without attribution

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column in The Manila Times about how some TV news anchors would routinely end their newscasts by reciting without attribution certain pithy statements of famous statesmen or literary writers. This was after my then 23-year-old son and I had a long discussion over its possible unethical aspect, at the end of which we presumed that the news anchors (1) were actually aware that those quoted statements do need attribution every time, but that (2) they just weren’t sensitive enough to the primacy of intellectual property rights and (3) not assertive enough either to resist the routine adding of those unattributed statements to the newscast scripts.

Well, based on my recent viewings of the evening TV newscasts, it’s evident that the same TV news anchors have not at all relented in doing this highly questionable practice. This time, in fact, the subtle hesitance in their voice and body language when quoting without attribution is now completely gone, indicating that doing this is now well within their comfort zone—to be done with neither guilt nor remonstrance.

To revive my personal objection to the practice, I decided to post that essay, “When TV newscasts don’t attribute quoted material,” in this week’s edition of the Forum. Reading the essay should also give Forum members and guests the opportunity to firm up and voice out their own thoughts about the matter. (August 9, 2010)

When TV newscasts don’t attribute quoted material

I’ve always felt that something wasn’t right in the way either of the two news anchors of a major Metro Manila cable TV network would wind up its 10:00 o’clock nightly newscast. One of them would make an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders, enunciate something pithily profound like, say, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment,”* smile a forced smile after a quick swallow of the throat, then make a fast goodbye as if his or her hand had been caught inside a cookie jar.

On one occasion, in fact, I had remarked to my two sons how odd this body language of the news anchors was. When they pressed me for a reason why, I theorized that the anchors probably were reading something on the teleprompter against their will, something very well-worded that wasn’t in their power to think up on their own but have to say anyway because it was in the script. I was almost sure that the anchors were actually reciting quotable quotes from famous historical or literary figures without giving attribution, but because of the pressure of so many other mundane tasks, I never really got to verify my hunch.

But a few nights ago, while one of my sons was watching that nightly newscast, he interrupted my reading to call my attention to what he thought was the confirmation of that hunch. “Dad,” he said, “one of the newscasters has just said, ‘Who does not know another language, does not know his own,’ and he said it as if it was his own idea. It’s actually a direct quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German writer. We used that quote in the Quotable Quotes section of Jose Carillo’s English Forum last week, and you asked me to make sure the attribution was done right, remember?”

“Hmm . . . Are you sure the newscaster didn’t attribute the statement to Goethe?” I asked.

“No, Dad, he didn’t,” he said. “Like before, the newscaster seemed hesitant so say the quote but he said it anyway without attribution. So you were right after all—those profound ideas they have gotten into the habit of reciting at the end of each newscast were somebody else’s.”

“I thought so.”

“Isn’t there a law against that?”

“Well, in writing, if you don’t attribute a quoted statement to the author, that would be plagiarism. You’ve stolen intellectual property. In college, your professor could flunk you if you’re caught doing it.”

“So why do those newscast writers persist in not giving credit where credit is due? Do they think the broadcast media is above the law?”

“Maybe not. Perhaps they’re doing it simply as a private joke. They probably want to see how far they can take the newscasters, the station management, and us TV viewers for a ride. They must get such a good laugh watching those newscasters squirm while reciting a quotable quote as if it was their own.”

“That’s mean! Shouldn’t those news writers be sanctioned for that?”

“That’s up to the TV station, son. Perhaps they should just be asked to stop the practice outright, be slapped a fine of perhaps a month’s salary, publicly apologize in their own newscast, and undergo intensive training in journalistic ethics.”

“And what about those newscasters who are routinely conned into mouthing other people’s ideas as if those ideas were theirs?”

“Oh, I suspect they know the game all along. I’ll bet they are aware that each of those quoted statements need attribution. But they just aren’t sensitive enough to the primacy of intellectual property rights, and not assertive enough either to resist the lawless humor of their news writers. So what they need, I think, is a special course in assertiveness training.” (September 5, 2009)  

*This is a quote from Henry David Thoreau, American essayist, poet, and philosopher (1817-1862).

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 5, 2009, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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