We were excited to speak with the journalist who broke one of the most interesting and talked-about plagiarism scandals to date, Jarrett Hill. Hill tells us how he discovered there was plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech, his favorite hashtag, and why he thinks plagiarism is what many writers feel is their last resort.
Copyleaks: Tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re currently doing:
JH: I live in Los Angeles and I am a journalist and host for radio and television. I am the person who discovered the plagiarism of the “Melania/Michelle Obama speech”. I was working on finding my next job and one day I was in Starbucks listening to the RNC on a livestream on my laptop having an iced coffee and pastry. I was sitting there and was starting to recognize and finished the statement along with her out loud and figured wow this is really bizarre and knew that Michelle Obama said that. So, I immediately tweeted about it . And then I started Googling Michelle Obama’s speech and found it was the first lady’s speech from 2008. There was an NPR transcript that posted about it years ago. And I saw there was “the height of your achievement is the willingness to work hard…” quote.
Someone had posted a really shoddy video of their television screen with the speech and I was able to watch it. That’s when I realized this is a much bigger deal. Someone took this text and reused it. So that was the moment I realized this was a story.
Copyleaks: Did you think it would create such a buzz?
JH: I was live tweeting it and I had 1700 followers who were mainly friends of mine so I wasn’t expecting it to go the way it did. However, I did think it was a story. I did think it could become a thing. In addition to tweeting it out to my followers, I tweeted to everyone I could see on screen to MSNBC. And I emailed them telling them it was a story. In the mean time, it was getting retweeted. I started having this onset of fear. Like, what if I’m wrong. Like I’m a journalist getting it completely wrong. By the time my tweet had been tweeted more than 600 times I decided it was time to leave Starbucks and go home because it was starting to make me really nervous. By the time I got home, it was retweeted 1000 times and CNN had a side by side with Michelle Obama and Melania. I was like holy crap my story is on CNN.
Copyleaks: Did you think plagiarism was a big deal?
JH: I felt like it was a huge deal to me because the lowest hanging fruit was that it was so lazy and so careless of a mistake. The way that a process like that would happen I totally understand. ‘Melania is going to be giving a speech, let’s talk about ideas and things she needs to talk about. Let’s look back at other inspiring speeches…what a great quote from Michelle Obama.’ And someone didn’t italicize and note “make sure this doesn’t make it to final speech”. So that’s what made it surprising to me since it was so careless and from a political statement, how could you handle the president or the white house or being the first lady or having to speak to world leaders and international organizations…that’s what really got me.
Copyleaks: Do you think after this scandal, politicians will take plagiarism more seriously?
JH: I’ve been saying 2016 has had a lot of firsts. If this was 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to sit in a coffee shop and stream the convention and live tweet about it and use Google to find the transcript and so on and so forth. So because of the way that technology works, this story was able to happen. But the way technology has advanced, every speech will be run through a plagiarism detection service like Copyleaks to make sure text doesn’t appear somewhere else.
Copyleaks: As a reporter, what actions do you think need to be taken to prevent plagiarism in your own work and from others taking your words?
JH: I don’t know how possible it is. I feel like it’s inevitable because of the clicky, copy-paste society that we’re in. Having software that can do that is a huge asset to make sure plagiarizing won’t happen. I don’t know that this will go away.
Copyleaks: What do you think repercussions of plagiarism should be?
JH: I think it depends on the context. If I’m Melania Trump giving a speech at the RNC, the repercussions of that is this huge story and I look stupid and that jeopardizes the campaign.
If I’m a journalist and I’m plagiarizing content and not attributing it, then that affects my job and I either get reprimanded or fired. If I’m a student I’m obviously going to get a demerit or suspended.
Copyleaks: Our final question is a fun one-what was your favorite hashtag?
JH: Social media definitely had a field day with this one. Seven out of the ten top trending hashtags on Twitter were about this story. Definitely #famousmelaniaquotes and also the two photos- one of the first family with a portrait with Melania’s face. And then Melania quoting Beyonce lyrics.
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