Let’s Talk About Podcasts and Plagiarism

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Questionable ethics in this burgeoning medium is a bad foundation to build on.

For a media platform that has exploded as quickly as podcasts, we expect growing pains. Like when you were in high school and didn’t totally understand citing. You got a D and a “See Me” on a paper. Today, there are at least two podcasts with worldwide audiences using words that aren’t theirs, and making bank while pretending they are doing all of research. The responses of Crime Junkie and The Dollop to allegations of podcast plagiarism is distressing. They are extremely popular and influential shows setting a bad standard. Not only for the medium’s legitimacy, but for our own ethical consumption.

Going Viral For the Wrong Reasons

Crime Junkie is currently one of the most popular true crime podcasts in the game. Their episodes are short, around half-an hour. Co-host Ashley Flowers tells a crime story to Brit Prawat, who chimes in with an occasional question. There is some light speculation and very little banter. On the surface, it seems like a pleasant enough show. A decent way to learn basic facts about true crime cases that aren’t the Big Known Stories.

The journalist Cathy Frye recently called out Crime Junkie on the a co-host’s public Facebook page. Frye had done extensive, exclusive reporting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the murder of Kacie Woody. Crime Junkie directly lifted many paragraphs of Frye’s work with no attribution.

Crime Junkie likes to pride itself on covering unsolved or relatively unknown cases. Turns out this is a lot easier to do when the research is not your own! CJ did not respond directly or apologize once Frye’s post went viral. Instead, they pulled the Kacie Woody ep, as well as others that, according to podcast, “their source material could no longer be found or properly cited.” CJ’s entire apology, posted only to Facebook, likes to emphasize all the extremely hard work they do compiling research. The thesaurus digging CJ did to pen this PR move comes off as extremely laughable. Can you read this statement and come away thinking they take podcast plagiarism seriously?

Crime Junkie’s non apology on Facebook

Even if this statement were somehow true, CJ decided to re-upload the Kacie Woody episode three days later with the addition of links to Cathy Frye’s work in the show credits. Adding the text attribution directly contradicts their reason for taking down the episode to begin with. There is no mention in the actual episode or any other update to the audio recording.

The Democrat-Gazette has sent a cease-and-desist to Ashley Flowers, co-host and creator. Flowers has until Sept 12 to comply with the requests to update the audio with full and proper credit or take it down again.

It’s Not Just Once

In one sense, Cathy Frye is lucky. She has the backing of her newspaper’s legal team. The other podcasts that Crime Junkie has plagiarized from generally don’t have those resources. A recent episode of the true-crime discussion podcast Let’s Taco ‘Bout True Crime brought up accusations from other podcasts hosts. LTBTC is hosted by Esther Armendariz Ludlow, who also hosts Once Upon A Crime. She discusses coming across an episode of Crime Junkie about missing women in Juarez. Esther had done original reporting on the story. She could tell that Crime Junkie had lifted passages directly from her work. Her guests, Robin Warder from The Trail Went Cold and Stephen Pacheco from Trace Evidence talk through their individual experiences with CJ’s plagiarism.

While all these podcasts have dedicated listeners, they do not have the reach CJ has achieved. Somehow, CJ has attained over 110,000 reviews on iTunes, when in January they had just over 10,000. (That’s according to this Rolling Stone profile). In contrast, the Joe Rogan podcast, basically the most popular podcast in the world, has the same amount of reviews. His show has been around for ten years, while Crime Junkies is just under two years old. 🧐)

Meanwhile, people like Robin, Esther and Stephen are not making roughly six figures per month via Patreon to spend on FOIA requests, traveling to courthouses, hunting down interviews, etc. Actual podcast research expenses. So to see their work read near-verbatim and without attribution is upsetting. These are the people who deserve six figure Patreons a month and glowing big publication coverage. They are also almost certainly not the only people Crime Junkie have plagiarized from. Based on what I’ve gleaned from the subreddit, CJ has also ripped directly from shows like Dateline, On The Case with Paula Zhan and Disappeared.

Crime Junkie’s explosion of popularity does not match the care they put in to their work.

Crime Junkie currently makes untold-thousands of dollars each month on Patreon. Flowers also has pending deals for a new podcast and a scripted TV show. The New York Times and Rolling Stone have profiled Flowers and co-host Brit wearing merch with their slogan on it. Crime Junkie’s explosion of popularity does not match the care they put in to their work.

As the Crime Junkie story rippled across the internet, it became clear there are extremely large numbers of people who just don’t care about plagiarism. Most CJ fans parrot “you can’t copy-write facts!” and are mostly the type who dig in their heels when popular opinion says “this is wrong”. Too many posts can be summed up as “Does anyone REALLY care about them stealing? I like how they tell stories, and I’m going to keep listening!” The podcast is not setting a sterling example for these fans. I’m not sure I can blame them for not caring, when the show cares so little itself.

The issues with CJ do not end at plagiarism, sadly. The podcast has pulled other episodes from its feed before (Kendrick Johnson and Amanda Cope) due to misrepresenting facts and leaving out details. Ashley Flowers also appeared on fellow true-crime podcast The Murder Squad to discuss the Delphi Murders, where she got multiple details wrong. This is a podcast that likes to tout its advocacy for victims, but this sort of sloppiness is disrespectful and embarrassing. Why should these ladies be trusted to tell any victim’s story?

The Response is Part of the Problem Too

Plagiarism is bad, but it doesn’t make you a monster. As human beings, we all fall short of expectations. One accusation of using a paragraph or some lines from another podcast would be understandable. It would be the sort of thing a show could apologize for and learn from. But there is a substantial history of CJ constantly taking info from others.

Their non-apology statement reads very much like a “fuck you” to anyone who bothers to care about ethics. Basic citing is something we learn about in middle school. We’re all pretty clear that stealing from others is wrong. I think that if CJ had, from the beginning, even loosely cited the scripting, it would’ve become clear how little original work they do.

The only real apology is changed behavior.

Maybe that’s why they seem so adverse to editing their current content. Crime Junkie would rather take down episodes than admit what they’ve done wrong. Getting caught is the only thing they’re sorry about. I believe the only real apology is changed behavior. We have yet to see how the podcast will address any of this going forward. Based on their pattern of stealing and not admitting to wrong-doing, I am not optimistic.

Comedy Isn’t An Excuse Either

The Dollop has a similarly hostile history with proper citation. This is a podcast with an overall similar setup, but focusing on comedy instead of true crime. Dave Anthony reads a (usually ridiculous) story from history to Gareth (Gary) Reynolds, who knows nothing about it. Plenty of jokes occur throughout. It’s an enjoyable way to learn historical nuggets.

Recently, journalist Josh Levin noticed just how much of his original reporting was re-purposed in the script for their Welfare Queen episode. He tweeted a thread detailing his issue with the podcast: how they make money off his words, and how it influences others as to the origin of information. Levin also touches on The Dollop’s history with citing.

After the first time The Dollop was called out for plagiarizing by the blog Damn Interesting, they decided to cite their sources on a separate website and pledged do better. That’s cool, having one place where original research can be found is better than nothing. But it does not change the perception while listening to the audio that the words you are hearing are original to the people who are saying them. An audio medium should cite sources audibly.

Dave’s response also painted himself as the victim. It ends with insistence that his podcast was not copyright infringement and he was not a plagiarist. I know those accusations must have hurt. But it leaves a real bad taste to read what should be an apology and find it is really just a hostile defense.

Alan from Damn Interesting considers the matter “retired”. It’s clear however that Dave’s response didn’t exactly impress him. I can’t blame him, especially when you consider how much The Dollop is making across their Patreon, live shows and book sales.

Patreon overview circa 2015, via Damn Interesting

The Dollop’s Patreon makes over four figures per month. Their copy makes mention of the “exhaustive research” they do for each episode. But what are fans paying for exactly? I’d love to know.

Dave Anthony recently responded to Josh Levin’s concerns on reddit (PS why are podcasters so weird about where they put their responses? Don’t you have a website for this?) and I believe he’s sincere. I’m still concerned though, because The Dollop has been around for 5 years and nearly 400 episodes. They are constantly touring across the world, and many thousands of people attribute their knowledge to Dave and Gary. Podcasting is Dave Anthony’s day job and it has taken him too long to realize the negative influence of his actions.

In a different industry that would be unacceptable. It is easy to dismiss these sort of misunderstandings as growing pains. This is a medium still developing, one that comes from a DIY background. If there’s no precedent to rely on, skating by with a website link in your description can seem like enough. But it’s not, and big podcasts with lots of listenership and influence have to do better. If a podcast is getting advertiser dollars and fans paying them monthly, they should be writing original scripts and quoting from their source material.

I am not saying “stop listening to The Dollop” (I AM saying stop listening to Crime Junkie, because they have made negative effort to acknowledge their mistakes or make things right, and fuck them) but I think people should care about how the podcasting sausage is made. Listeners should care when one of their main forms of entertainment is deceiving them and using others’ work.

Listen to Something Better

There are plenty of podcasts that cite properly, and many that are doing crucial investigative reporting. I think it’s important to shout them out and recommend podcasts that are the best examples of their genre.

Here are my favorite podcasts that do not plagiarize:
  • Missing and Murdered is a Canadian podcast that focuses on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Hosted by journalist Connie Walker, of Cree descent herself, this podcast is helping to shine a light on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women with sensitive and insightful reporting.
  • Undisclosed is a wrongful conviction podcast hosted by three lawyers, one of whom is responsible for bringing the story of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed to Serial. They dive further into Hae’s murder than Serial ever did, along with numerous other troubling cases like Keith Davis Jr and Freddie Gray. They do deep dives into every aspect of each case, from the initial act to the verdict that will have you questioning the ethics of law enforcement and our criminal justice system.
  • The Fall Line investigates little known cold cases in the Southeastern US. The depth of storytelling and advocacy for victims is a standard for all cold case podcasts to follow.
  • In The Dark‘s award-winning investigative reporting dives deep into cases and is unafraid to ask questions about shady prosecutors and accountability.
Non-fiction podcasts that aren’t necessarily true crime:
  • Behind the Bastards: investigative journalist Robert Evans brings on a different guest for each bastard, where he dives into the history of everyone from dictators to astrologists who have made our world remarkably worse in some way. There is banter about machetes and the fall of capitalism in between the depressing stories.
  • This Podcast Will Kill You is my favorite infectious disease podcast. Hosted by dual-Erin doctors with backgrounds in disease ecology and a love for science communication. Learn about everything from Lyme’s Disease to Yellow Fever, with fun cocktail recommendations to boot!
  • Futility Closet is perfect for being educational, fun, and extremely soothing to listen to. Husband and wife team Sharon and Greg Ross host this family affair, with delightful bass noodling from brother Doug Ross. Short fascinating stories from history that you may not know and brain-twisting lateral thinking puzzles, plus occasional podcat hi-jinks!

Big special thanks to redditors SnittingNextToBorpo, Noffsferatu, Huskyholms, Snarkysaurus and Trenchcoatangel for early reading and giving me feedback on this essay!