Religious Writers With Sticky Fingers

Gospel music blogs plagiarize on the reg

plagerism Religious Writers With Sticky Fingers

As a senior contributor to Downbeat and the author of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, Aaron Cohen is an authority on jazz and gospel music. He also happens to be a professor of journalism at City College in Chicago. Over the weekend, these two worlds collided.

On Saturday, the Chicago Tribune ran Mr. Cohen’s review of the Gospel Fest taking place on the city’s South Side. His story, entitled “Gospel Fest combines church music with history” began:

Combining a cultural revival, historical commemoration and Bronzeville neighborhood celebration, the 29th Chicago Gospel Music Festival continued highlighting sounds that were formed in South Side churches. The thousands who attended the weekend event on Saturday at Ellis Park also encouraged the onstage declarations of this legacy.

On Monday morning, Sheilah Belle’s publication, The Belle Report, arrived in the email in-boxes of her many subscribers. An article entitled “Chicago Gospel Fest combines church music with history” began:

Combining a cultural revival, historical commemoration and Bronzeville neighborhood celebration, the 29th Chicago Gospel Music Festival continued highlighting sounds that were formed in South Side churches. The thousands who attended the weekend event on Saturday at Ellis Park also encouraged the onstage declarations of this legacy.

You get the point. The entire article, all 354 words, was lifted in toto from Mr. Cohen’s Tribune story. Then a shorter version that used the first three and a half paragraphs of Mr. Cohen’s story verbatim appeared on the site gospelhotspot.net.

Mr. Cohen is annoyed. He told the Observer, “It seems flattering that my work is circulating, but theft is theft. My 19 year old students know what plagiarism is – this seemingly adult person is doing this.”

Aaron Cohen's story in the Chicago Tribune (screen cap)

Aaron Cohen’s story in the Chicago Tribune (screen cap)

It’s not the first time Mr. Cohen’s work has been stolen.

“This has happened before. I wrote a story about Rev James Cleveland, a composer and choir director from Chicago who worked with Aretha. He died of AIDS. Their version dropped that part and changed my sentence from ‘died of complications from AIDS’ to ‘died of complications.’”

The Belle Report is a major player in the gospel world. According to Robert Marovich, the Editor of The Black Gospel Blog, “The Belle Report is well read by the gospel music community and has a huge following, so it is not a small blog at all. [It's] very influential and she gets a lot of gigs as a result of it.”

(Ms. Belle has yet to respond to the Observer‘s request for comment; if she does, this story will be updated to reflect her response.)

Identical story with no attribution in The Belle Report (screen cap)

Identical story with no attribution in The Belle Report (screen cap)

Mr. Marovich says that Ms. Belle’s blog is not alone in helping itself to stories written by others.

“I have had my work lifted by another major gospel media source, and this kind of reckless behavior has to stop. When one does it, it makes all of us look bad.”

For his part, Mr. Cohen, who won two prestigious Deems Taylor Awards for music writing, including for his 2011 piece about Ray Charles, has notified the Tribune‘s legal department. He has also kept his sense of humor while noting the irony of the sin being committed by those who cover religious music. “I guess that whole ‘Thou Shall Not Steal’ Commandment went out the window with the Old Testament’s ban on ham & cheese.”