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Did the Crime Junkie Hosts Really Plagiarize Their Content?

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The Crime Junkie plagiarism allegations have rocked the true crime podcast world. But are they true?

The Crime Junkie plagiarism allegations have rocked the true crime podcast world. But are they true?

The Crime Junkie Plagiarism Controversy

I'll admit upfront that I'm a fan of Ashley Flowers' and Brit Prawat's weekly podcast Crime Junkie and listen to it every Monday before work. The show is concise, gets to the point, tells a story, and wraps it up into a neat little package without being overtly salacious or going off on 20-minute tangents about dryer sheets.

Some episodes cover solved cases while others explore possible conspiracies, but a lot of the crimes featured on the show are unsolved, and I appreciate that Flowers and Prawat bring these cases to light—a lot of them I'd never heard of before listening.

So, in August 2019, I was floored to see a handful of other podcasters I follow on social media claiming that the hosts of Crime Junkie had been plagiarizing their work from other podcasts and journalists.

Here's the thing—as someone who makes their living creating original content, I hate to see anyone riding the coattails of other content creators and making money off of it, especially because I've had my own work plagiarized.

But before I go accusing—or believing—that anyone copied anyone, I decided to do some research into the claims, and here's what I found.

What Is Plagiarism?

Okay, let's start with a quick little refresher on what it means to plagiarize.

According to Plagiarism.org, a site dedicated to helping writers, students, teachers, and content creators understand the meaning of the word in every context, plagiarism is when someone takes an idea and tries to say it's their own original thought.

How Can You Avoid It?

See what I did up there, citing my source for finding out what plagiarism is? I prevented myself from plagiarizing that website by giving them credit for the information I found on their page.

Is Plagiarism a Crime?

In most cases, plagiarism in and of itself is not a criminal or civil offense. However, because the act can constitute both theft (of intellectual property) and fraud (passing someone else's work off as your own), there are instances when plagiarism that infringes upon an author's copyright does result in lawsuits. Plagiarism can also constitute a breach of contract for the offending author, whose publisher is usually expecting original content.

More often than not, plagiarism is considered a violation of honor or ethics codes and persons who have plagiarized are subject to disciplinary action by their schools or workplaces.

How Can Podcasters Prevent Plagiarism?

There are two different types of true crime podcasts: investigative and curatorial. In investigative podcasts, the host is doing exclusive, original journalism. Take True Crime Bullsh** by Josh Hallmark, for instance. Hallmark makes phone calls, interviews people close to the case, sifts through FBI files, and reports information about the Israel Keyes case that no one else has reported on before. Most of his information is original and does not need to be sourced.

Then there's podcasts like My Favorite Murder, where the hosts are curating the work of others, rewording facts and information about true crime cases that they've gleaned from outside sources like news articles, YouTube videos and yes, other podcasts.

Here's a few easy ways that these podcasters can avoid plagiarism:

  1. If the podcast is one that rehashes information about cases that have been investigated by someone else, then the hosts should say upfront, at the beginning of each episode, where they got the sources for their research. It's something that Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff do regularly on My Favorite Murder.
  2. If a podcaster is going to quote a person from the case, they should preface the quote by saying who the person is and the name of the publication and author that originally interviewed the person. For instance, if someone created a podcast episode based on this article that I'm writing, the podcaster would say "In Em Clark's article on the Crime Wire ... " before quoting me.
  3. Podcasters should link to their original sources in each episode's description.

Who Is Saying That Brit and Ashley Plagiarized Original Content?

There are several journalists claiming that the show stole their work. It's hard to compile a finite list, but the loudest voice on the issue is writer and former reporter Cathy Frye.

Who Is Cathy Frye?

According to her Twitter profile (no longer active), Frye is a "Dreamer; Booklover; Believer," but she's also an investigative journalist who wrote the four-part series "Caught in The Web" for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2003. The piece covered the murder case of Arkansas teen Kacie Woody, who was murdered by an online stalker.

What Is Cathy Frye Claiming Against Crime Junkie?

Frye claims in an August 12th, 2019, comment on host Ashley Flower's personal Facebook page that Crime Junkie quoted her 2003 article on the Kacie Woody case without giving any credit to the original source (which Frye claims is her 2003 article).

I've made a screenshot of Frye's comments (which Flowers did not respond to), but for the sake of not getting myself into my own legal pickle, I will not be sharing them. Anyone with about five seconds and a little Facebook know-how won't have any trouble finding them on their own.

Are Frye's Claims Valid?

Now down to the nitty gritty. Is Frye right? Did they really copy this material without giving due credit to its original source?

I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to go running my mouth saying that what happened here is blatant plagiarism—or not.

But here's what I can say: I listened to the episode shortly before it was taken down and can't say that I remember Brit or Ash bringing up this article. This doesn't mean they didn't, it just means I don't remember.

What I do remember is some borderline creepy reenactments of instant message conversations between Kacie Woody and her online paramours, performed by Ash and Brit.

These conversations were definitely verbatim to Woody's quoted conversations in "Caught in The Web," and these conversations were not previously or thereafter printed elsewhere, which means that the podcasters must have found the transcripts in Frye's original series.

Purely from an ethical standpoint, the right thing to do here would have been for Brit and Ash to give due credit to Frye for these transcripts, both verbally and in the episode's description. I can't say that they didn't though, since the episode is now deleted.

Does Crime Junkie Ever Cite Sources?

Yes, they do cite and link sources in their show notes, which can be easily found on their website. It's not difficult to find that the sources are separated for each episode as well.

Flowers also states at the beginning of most episodes that each case takes her days of research. She never claims that the "research" is original sleuthing. We can assume she means the same kind of "research" the rest of us are doing: Googling.

The Difference Between Quoting Facts and Sources

Something that needs to be addressed is that facts on most true crime cases probably don't require a citation. For instance, if you're talking about a crime that took place in Florida in July, you can say that that day was hot and it doesn't need to be sourced. It's a fact—Florida is hot in July.

If you're talking about a particular clue that was found at the scene of the crime that's been made public by police, this is also probably not a fact that needs to be sourced.

But if you're quoting a person involved in the crime and you haven't interviewed that person yourself—well, someone did! That person needs to be cited as the source for this particular information.

Do All True Crime Podcasters Cite Their Sources Within Each Episode?

No, they do not. Actually, as a longtime My Favorite Murder listener, I'm comfortable saying that if you listen to their first stack of episodes, you'll find that not even our SSDGM ("Stay Sexy, Don't Get Murdered") queens followed attribution etiquette. I'm also an avid listener of Casefile, a researched podcast that does not cite sources at any point throughout its episodes.

Wait, so Why Are the Crime Junkie Hosts Catching Flack When Other Podcasters Regularly Forego Proper In-Episode Attribution?

I think there's a number of reasons Prawat and Flowers have encountered so much controversy:

  • Crime Junkie was reaching new heights compared to other true crime podcasts right before the plagiarism claims. Sure, the hosts of My Favorite Murder are basically a household name, but they're famous for their lack of tact, whereas the calm-mannered, straightforward Prawat and Flowers were seen as the antithesis to Hardstark and Kilgariff. The higher the pedestal, the further the fall, you know?
  • Podcasts like Casefile lack a face. It's a collaborative project with an anonymous host. Even when we define what's gone down with Crime Junkie as plagiarizing, it's not as interesting of a story because there aren't bright, seemingly innocent faces to plaster next to jarring headlines.
  • Frye went hard after Flowers in a really public way. There's a good chance other podcasts have dealt with plagiarism claims, but the details likely played out behind the scenes, between lawyers.
Podcasters should follow the same etiquette that journalists do, but what's the best way to incorporate this into an audio-entertainment medium?

Podcasters should follow the same etiquette that journalists do, but what's the best way to incorporate this into an audio-entertainment medium?

Wouldn’t It Be Annoying to Have Every Darn Fact Sourced Throughout an Episode?

I think it would be. One of the reasons I love listening to podcasts like the one in question is that they're streamlined. But all podcasters need to take a page from the MFM book and start listing sources at the top of each episode.

And if you're drawing heavily from someone's work, give them a verbal shoutout. It's only fair to the other podcasters, journalists, content creators and authors who have done the serious legwork of research and investigation.

So Did Crime Junkie Plagiarize, or What?

In my opinion, as a writer and content creator? No! If they did, every other true crime podcast is also plagiarizing by not explicitly verbally citing the source material they use to research their episodes. Even some of the podcasters who accused Crime Junkie of plagiarism are known to recite facts about cases on their own podcasts without actually citing in-episode where they got their information.

The problem is that the Crime Junkie episode in question relied heavily on Frye's reporting because up until the podcast episode was released, there was very little information on the Kacie Woody case aside from Frye's original investigation, which found itself buried in the search results under newer cases favored by Google's algorithm.

And maybe this is the one small win for the Woody family when it comes to the drama that is true crime podcasting, as Kacie's story and the very applicable warnings about keeping kids safe online are finally being heard.

© 2019 Em Clark

Comments

Jacqueline G Rozell on September 11, 2019:

Have never been a fan of crime shows of any type.and have no comparisons to make here.If I were a "professional" I'd like to think I would have researched somewhat to see if anyone had already done anything on the same subject material and if they had, I would have found another. Crossroads tend to become muddy when too many people trespass them.