I have been following with some interest the recent Jonah Lehrer events. Lehrer, a bright young man who was doing much too much, much too fast, for much too long, originally got into trouble blogging at The New Yorker when it was discovered that material from his posts there was recycled fairly directly from previously material he had previously published, leading him to resign; further inquiry unveiled that this was quite common throughout Lehrer's oeuvre, leading publishers to pull his most recent book and begin investigating others; and more recently Wired.com had a full-scale inquiry about Lehrer's work with them, concluding that he had engaged in multiple accounts of journalistic misconduct, including recycling, plagiarism, and repeated sloppiness with quotation, ending with Wired.com firing him. The Wired.com investigator recently published a summary of the results of his investigation, which is one of the more interesting pieces in the saga to read, since unlike most of the hue and cry it's published by someone who at least has some idea why plagiarism and recycling are problems in a journalistic context.
Plagiarism was not on the stone tablets at Sinai, and it is not a sufficiently well-defined offense to be anything intrinsically wrong. Indeed, contrary to the way it is often presented, there is nothing morally wrong with plagiarism as such; rather, it's a social role violation. It gets its moral wrongness because in a particular context it is a failure to fulfill our responsibilities to others. The 'in a particular context' qualification is quite important: if you look at issues of plagiarism across a wide variety of fields, it becomes clear that the standards are not stable, and that things that would be counted as plagiarism in one field are often not in another, and for good reason. Plagiarism becomes an issue when money or reputation are on the line. Nobody cares if lawyers, hired to write a contract, recycle parts of old contracts, whether their own or another's, because people don't pay lawyers for writing new kinds of contracts, even when a contract does happen to be of a new kind, but for writing contracts that do what they're supposed to do; and legal reputations are built not on finding new contract language, even when lawyers do, but on finding contract language that works in a given situation. Likewise, oral storytelling and much folksinging is an area in which using other people's material is not a big thing: it's the performance that matters. (Contrast that with stand-up comedy, in which distinguishable material is extremely important, and in which using someone else's material is regarded as a very bad thing.) In academia, on the other hand, reputation depends on having a body of work distinguishable from anyone else's, and there is a great deal of pressure on reputation as a way of sorting out who gets the nicer things -- academia is a reputation market, and the reputations are built on standing out from other people in one's contributions. Contrary to the way this is often presented, this does not mean that academia puts a premium on originality in any robust sense; but it does mean that academia puts a premium on doing something distinguishable. Plagiarism is a threat to this, and whether you view academic life as a pursuit of truth or as a political interaction, the result is the same: if it were to spread, it would make this particular kind of pursuit or interaction impossible. (There is variation, of course, across the disciplines: witness the differences between the sciences and the humanities on authorship of papers. In the sciences, everyone who makes a notable contribution to the substance of the paper is usually listed as an author; but in the humanities, most of these people would usually be given credit in a footnote, at best, and even that involves judgment calls about just how important they were in the development of the paper. This, as with everything else, is due to differences in how reputations are built up in the different fields.)
Journalists, on the other hand, are required always to be doing something new; it's what they're paid for. The New Yorker, no doubt, was shocked that it was paying Lehrer not to write new and distinctive material that would be exclusive to The New Yorker but to say again what he had already said in several other places. Popular young authors being paid well to write new things is a good deal for a periodic publication; popular young authors being paid well to repeat themselves, not so much. Newspapers, magazines, and other outlets are themselves competing in a reputation market; they need to stand out as a constant source of accurate new information, and this is as much true on the opinion side as on the reporting side. Journalists working for them are hired precisely in order to contribute to this, and they are certainly not doing this if they are recycling old material and plagiarizing other people, actions that could reflect very badly on the reputation of the people they work for (and with). This is, incidentally, one reason why the author of the article is right about one journalistic gray area, repeating press release material. As Seife notes, when journalists simply repeat material in a press release, they aren't harming the people they are copying at all (quite the opposite); but they are still violating the same professional responsibilities to other people in the profession of journalism, in exactly the same way they are when they engage in any other plagiarism. The same social role expectations are violated, and for the same reason. As with academia, robust originality is not really what journalists are after here: it's distinguishability. The conventions are radically different. An academic who sourced things the way journalists source things would soon be in hot water, since by most academic publishing standards sourcing in journalistic publishing even at its best is extremely haphazard and defective, while there are probably things many academics will happily do that would horrify a journalist; but this is precisely because the two professions face different reputational issues, and therefore what counts as bad copying is not going to be the same.