IIT-M and the press

UPDATE 30/08/2012: If you read the following, do also read the comments, especially the ones from Vinodhini and K N Arun (both are former TNIE journalists, and Arun was a very senior figure there; disclosure — my wife is a former TNIE journalist too); and from Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a well-known electrical engineering professor at IIT Madras, who quotes an official IIT statement that I haven’t seen in the media. In my opinion, the TNIE needs to address that statement on its pages, since it is flagrantly contrary to what they have been publishing, but — to an impartial observer — is quite believable.

The New Indian Express is currently on a crusade against IIT Madras because one of their photographers was allegedly roughed up by IIT security and a professor. The photographer was clicking photographs of grieving students at a women’s hostel where a student had committed suicide. Reportedly he was asked to desist, and refused. So he was assaulted, he says, by security and the professor. He filed a complaint with the police, and IIT has filed a counter-complaint against him.

There is no doubt that, if IIT assaulted him, they overstepped. It should be possible for security to remove an unarmed person peacefully and without violence. IIT needs to ask itself some hard questions on how this matter was handled

But does it follow that the photographer was in the right, or was merely doing his duty? That’s what one would infer from the media reports. I don’t see it that way.

This was a case of a student who committed suicide, apparently for personal reasons unrelated to IIT and most certainly unrelated to fellow hostel residents. Where was the need for the Express to dispatch a photographer to IIT? What possible value could be added by photos of grieving students at the hostel?

Yesterday the Express published twenty photographs taken by this photographer. Some are featureless photographs of the hostel, while others are photos of students, some of whom are clearly uncomfortable and trying to cover their faces or turning their backs to the camera. What the photos contain is a violation of privacy of individuals without the slightest public-interest justification. What they do not contain is any sort of newsworthiness. After some thought, I have decided not to link the photos — the individuals in them do not deserve this sort of internet publicity. Still, if you want to see them, the New Indian Express website has them quite prominently as of this writing.

I have not named individuals above, because I feel this is about the institutions. As I said above, IIT-M should have been able to handle the photographer without violence. Let me, however, link to a couple of articles from New Indian Express staffers.

The first, by D Suresh Kumar, is headlined "Internal mails hint at ploy to frame Albin". This is not really substantiated by the story, which suggests, at least to my reading, that IIT-M did not want a fight with the newspaper and decided to file a counter-complaint only in response to the aggressive stance of the Express. It also quotes allegations from a "globally accomplished" professor that it was the photographer who started the violence, by "tearing" the professor's shirt and "hitting" him.

Suresh Kumar ends by quoting another IIT-M professor: "While extending all possible support to our people involved, we should be strong enough to say, ‘Yes, there has been an error on our part and we deeply regret it’ and try for an out-of-court settlement." I fully agree with that. But is there also any introspection at the Express for their role in the affair? I see no sign whatever of it on their pages.

Which leads me to the article by G Babu Jayakumar, one of the more senior New Indian Express journalists. Headlined “Mr Sibal, how low will IIT-M stoop?”, he says “we are publishing all the pictures that Mathew took on the campus on August 21. They speak for themselves.” Yes, Mr Jayakumar, indeed they do — the publication of these completely non-newsworthy photos, and your stance and that of your newspaper, say more about your value system than any words could.

Finally, the Express alleges that IIT-M members are asking “why students were used in filing complaints against the photographer”. I have no idea about the internal discussions at IIT, but, sad to say, I find it believable that our police will only accept a complaint of harassment from the victim and not from the third party. It would be nice if the hostel warden were allowed to make the complaint, but I am not sure this can be done.

Meanwhile, the Express has published photographs of IIT women students trying to shield their faces from their photographer. It will be interesting to hear why they think this is not harassment. And do we really know that they have published all the photographs that were taken?

G Babu Jayakumar alleges an IIT “smear campaign” against the media, but so far I see no evidence of this — even the other English-language newspapers seem to be supporting the Express photographer, and making no effort to find out what really happened. I do see a smear campaign here, but it is entirely in the other direction, I’m afraid. Perhaps some members of IIT-M would indeed like to carry out a “smear campaign” against the media. But it is simply not possible. In situations like this, media organisations tend close ranks.

IIT-M should introspect. So should the Express, and the media in general. And share their introspections with us — perhaps by publishing their internal e-mails, similarly to how Suresh Kumar quotes internal IIT-M mails in his article. Will they do it?

Did Zakaria plagiarise? Yes, he did.

Much has been written about the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case, which led him to being suspended from Time and CNN. The oddest comments yet, however, come from Edward Jay Epstein in The Daily Beast. Epstein writes:

Plagiarism, from the Latin word plagiaries, or kidnapper, is an academic—and not legal—crime. It is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” And to “use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”…

But no, by no stretch of the imagination did Zakaria pass Winkler’s idea off as his own. He fully credits him as the source of the idea, stating in his opening sentence: “Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. So he’s borrowing but not plagiarizing it from Winkler.

The issue arose on the Internet because Zakaria was not the only user of Winkler’s idea. In the New Yorker in April, Jill Lepore also used the same idea from Winkler that “firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start.” She also credits him and his book as the ultimate source. So did others….

Epstein missed the part, apparently, about Zakaria copying Lepore’s prose verbatim. As Epstein himself says, plagiarism is about copying the ideas or words of another without attribution. If Zakaria had quoted Lepore (by name, and using quote marks or a blockquote as above) it would have been fine. What he did was not. He gave no indication that those words were Lepore’s, not his.

It is amazing that the Daily Beast, the outfit run by the respected Tina Brown and the current publisher of Newsweek, sees fit to publish an argument that undergraduates are regularly warned against.

It would have been equally unacceptable, if harder to prove, if Zakaria had first copied Lepore’s prose and then massaged it using a thesaurus to make it look different — something Epstein suggests would have been OK. Writers are supposed to do their own writing.

Finally, plagiarism is indeed a legal crime, if the material being copied is subject to copyright. Google “plagiarism lawsuit” for any number of examples. I am not aware of any case in academic circles that was pursued legally, but the possibility exists. And this was a journalistic case, not an academic one.

UPDATE 16 Aug 2012: Eric Zuesse argues that Zakaria probably did not plagiarise, but the truth is worse: he has an army of staffers who write his pieces for him. Indeed, this reminds me of Aroon Purie’s defence. It must be nice to be a professional writer who doesn’t actually have to write. Until, that is, something like this happens.

I wonder how it would work if opinion-makers were forced to give co-authorship to their research assistants (or whatever they are called). And failure to give appropriate authorship was viewed as seriously by Time, CNN and India Today as it is in academic circles. At the very least, some talented and unknown writers would actually get recognition.

Unreal Mars and real Earth

Phil Plait debunks this photo that’s been floating around, allegedly taken by the Mars Rover showing the Earth, Venus and Jupiter nicely lined up in the sky.

So I thought it is a good time to share a photo genuinely taken a few months ago by an Earth rover (namely, me), showing Earth’s moon, Venus and Jupiter similarly lined up above a landmark that Bangaloreans will know.