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Plagiarism and journalism students

When students plagiarize, they take a risk. I guess they tell themselves nothing very bad will happen to them.

When journalism students plagiarize, the risk is pretty damned big. For example, you lose your chance to work as a journalist. Ever.

I’m going to omit the name of the former student in my university’s journalism department who committed the offense of plagiarism multiple times while on an internship. I’m omitting her name because she already has enough on her wall of shame — just Google her, as I did, and you’ll get about 489,000 links — mostly about her offenses as a plagiarist. I’ll substitute “H.M.” for her name in the quotes below.

Apart from whatever disciplinary action the school may or may not see fit to carry out, it is not just [H.M.] who has a problem. So does the School of Journalism and Communications. If it is reluctant to ruin a student’s career, if it does not want to say that youthful mistakes are final, if it finds a promise of contrition and reform persuasive and allows her to continue toward a degree, a shadow will linger over its programs.

That was the opinion of John E. McIntyre, copy desk chief at The Baltimore Sun for 14 years. I agree with him — when a journalism student commits plagiarism, kick them out. H.M. was reported to have changed her major to one in another college at the University of Florida and presumably has graduated by now, but I was not able to verify either one. (By the way, we are the College of Journalism and Communications, not a school.)

The point is not that [H.M.] was a second-year student working on an assignment. The point was that [H.M.] was a journalist working on a story for a 90,000 circulation newspaper. Even if she was an intern, she was “writing” real stories and having them published, just like a professional journalist and should be held to the same standard as a professional. Plus, students shouldn’t be cheating anyway.

That was written on the Tumblr blog of a fellow journalism student of H.M.’s, a year after the internship plagiarism. Understandably, most journalism students at UF were unhappy about the case, thinking H.M.’s ethical failure would reflect on them. I hope not, because I feel certain that the majority of our journalism students would not be unethical in any way.

Another scandal involving a journalism intern affected the integrity of the Colorado Springs Gazette and intern [H.M.], a supposedly award-winning journalism student at the University of Florida. Gazette editor Jeff Thomas revealed that [H.M.] had plagiarized several NYT articles for a 2009 piece she wrote for the Colorado Springs paper, including stories with run dates as old as 1987. Some readers felt that the Gazette should have shared some of the blame since [H.M.] was just an intern, while others believed that a student with credentials as strong as she claimed to have should have known better. [H.M.] was “dismissed” from the paper.

That appeared at position 7 on a list titled Top 10 College Intern Scandals (no date). It’s true that H.M. had won at least one award for her journalism writing (before her downfall), and she was well regarded by her instructors (also before her downfall). But it doesn’t matter.

What students (and journalists) need to understand — thoroughly and utterly — is that dishonesty in this field cannot be forgiven. You don’t get a punishment and then come back to the way things were before, because the only thing you had to base your authority on was your integrity, your reliability. Those are your credentials for getting the trust of the public — the people for whom you produce your journalism.

With one act of dishonesty, all that is gone.

It’s not like a pencil — if you break it, you can get a new one. Not like that at all.

Related post: When plagiarism comes out, stand your ground

Related tutorials: Copying is stealing


Categories: teaching, training


9 Comments

  1. Steve Fox says:

    Good points, Mindy.

    I find the there are two issues here:

    1. Do students understand the ramifications of plagiarism? And, if they don’t, why not?

    2. The feeling by many faculty as well as students that plagiarism is somehow a forgivable offense inside an academic institution. When situations like the one you cite here arise, I’ve often heard the argument that it’s better that he/she made the mistake now in college — isn’t that what college is for? Such arguments like this frustrate me because they miss several points, including that plagiarism is occurring in real-life situations with internships and college newspapers.

    Second, I just can’t buy the argument that plagiarism is a “mistake” — part of a learning experience. Students are drilled since middle school not to use others work in place of their own. Plagiarism is an intentional act, not a “mistake” to learn from.

    As one former student said once: “If you’re going to plagiarize, why get into journalism?”

    Indeed.

  2. Steve, I’m with you on all counts. When anyone (the perpetrator or a defender) says plagiarism is just a “mistake,” I want to yell and bang on the table with my fists!

    Select text, copy text, paste text — oh yeah right, you were somehow unconscious when you did all that? You were not aware of the fact you were copying something and putting it into your story? Give me a freakin’ break!

  3. > dishonesty in this field cannot be forgiven.

    Were only it were true.

    Thus the authors at the NY Times who willingly and unthinkingly parroted the administration position on weapons of mass destruction would hang up their pencils for good.

    Thus the authors of press releases placed into the newspaper under the heading ‘Times and Transcript Staff’ would forever resign their positions.

    Thus the journals that bring in ten conservative pundits for every single left wing pundit would hang up their biased hats.

    I understand the zero tolerance of plagiarism. But its application reeks of dishonesty.

  4. Wow, Stephen, that’s a much bigger kettle of fish than my small rant about plagiarism. You’re right, of course — we can find a lot of practices and examples in journalism that clearly fall short. I hope that a growing call for transparency in all journalism will help to counteract those transgressions. I have great hope that the ability of the public to respond, through public forums and social media, will hold journalism accountable for most lapses in integrity.

  5. RF says:

    Mindy, you take exception to the claim that plagiarism cannot be done by mistake, but then you present an argument for why copying cannot be done by mistake. Your post suffers from the glaring fallacy that “plagiarism” and “copying” are completely different things. Everyone copies. The blog post copies three times. Civilization is based on copying. Plagiarism is not copying. Plagiarism is copying *without proper attribution*. Besides the fact that copying isn’t always “ctrl-c ctrl-v”, and can easily be done by someone who doesn’t remember that the idea they have they got from someone, there’s the fact that students don’t necessarily know the rules of attribution. When Newt Gingrich can get away with getting a book published and carried in major bookstores despite apparently being completely clueless as to what constitutes a valid citation, it’s somewhat understandable that student might not know the rules.

    And journalism is hardly intolerant of dishonesty. The media are still reporting that the national debt decreased under Clinton and Citizens United struck down limits on contributions to candidates’ campaign funds.

  6. @RF – You wrote that my post “suffers from the glaring fallacy that ‘plagiarism’ and ‘copying’ are completely different things.” In the previous sentence, I copied your words, but I clearly attributed them to you. That is copying, but it is not plagiarism.

    Copying with attribution is the foundation of modern scholarship and science. Of course I know this. Thank you for your clarification.

  7. Hi Mindy, just found my way to this post. I want to agree with you, but I’m more persuaded by Charles Seife’s recent Slate analysis of l’affaire Lehrer, where he adds a dimension of cultural responsibility to Jonah’s extreme personal transgressions:

    “Lehrer’s transgressions are inexcusable—but I can’t help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I’m 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.”

    Of course, because apprenticeship has changed — students are now indispensable unpaid (or underpaid) partners in the instant newsroom, rather than on-the-job learners in a deliberate publication process — HM was placed in a position similar to Lehrer’s, where an ethical failing (and it was a huge one) was fatal. At the same time, the pressure to produce content to maintain employment is far more immense than even when I started out a few years back.

    Under these conditions, it’s worth re-evaluating our professional ethics — maintaining our overall moral course (egregious first-time offenders *should* probably find a new major & job), but finding ways to help well-intending, embryonic journalists make necessary course corrections while en route. I’ll be honest, the recent college students I’ve taught often come in with a poor sense of all our conventional rules of plagiarism and fabrication, because they lack the cultural media mores we grew up with. I think j-school serves as a safe space in a way the newsroom no longer can.

    Oh, and don’t even get me started on the ethics of social media, my current obsession. Whole other ball of wax, albeit with some overlap on traditional issues like these…

  8. @Adam – I disagree that “it’s worth re-evaluating our professional ethics” (although I’m not sure you meant what that says). As I wrote earlier today, I think we need to revisit how we explain, how we teach, and what we SAY about these ethical violations. They remain violations, though, and they remain unacceptable.

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