Stamps Scholars

 Can colleges teach future journalists not to plagiarize?

Whenever my fellow journalism students and I go to a lecture or conference about the industry, we play a little bingo game. Points are awarded for mentions of the following events: Rolling Stone’s UVA sexual assault “investigation,” Brian William’s false reporting on the Iraq war and the firing of Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson and Mic’s Jared Keller for plagiarism. While this game is a way to get through a dry lecture, it also highlights the larger, timely discussion around ethics in media.

Of course, plagiarism and other ethical dilemmas are nothing new. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her story about an 8-year-old drug addict, but gave it back after the story proved to be false, and New York Times reporter Jayson Blair infamously resigned after accusations of plagiarism.

But as any journalist who can remember exactly what they were doing when Watergate broke will lament, the Internet has drastically changed how news is communicated and the ethical considerations that go along with it. While there might not be more cases of plagiarism, journalism professionals are faced with new challenges that go beyond how to source a GIF of Taylor Swift for a listicle. Does a publication reporting on another outlet’s article count as plagiarism? How many different headlines are there exactly for Clinton announcing her presidential campaign?

It might seem like there are no solutions to solving plagiarism in journalism, but it’s crucial to understand that the only way to stop journalists from plagiarizing is to instill early on a deep sense of what journalism is: factually reporting news and information and, of course, giving credit where it is due.

College is an epicenter of ethical conundrums, even outside the confines of a psychology 101 class. With the rise of the Internet and social media, it is easier than ever to buy a paper online or get the answers for a midterm from a classmate, as is seen with recent high profile cheating scandals ranging from the University of North Carolina to Dartmouth College to Harvard University. But the situation becomes more complicated when these sorts of dilemmas are occurring outside of a lecture hall.

I’m proud that at the University of Oregon, where I am a student, many of our publications are independent from the university, allowing students across disciplines to participate and budding journalists to become leaders. But there is no clear protocol when these publications are accused of plagiarism.

There was a scandal earlier this year when a reporter for The Daily Emerald, the University’s student-run newspaper, stole an article written by another student. While the incident wasn’t the first plagiarism scandal The Emerald had faced, it led to the paper reexamining its hiring and training processes. While this example had a productive outcome, in my experience, most of the ethical situations I have dealt with haven’t been so clear cut, nor resolved so effectively.

Last fall, I worked with an editor on a feature story for the university’s multicultural magazine, Ethos. After picking up the issue, I was surprised to find the editor had added his name to the byline. I was even more surprised to see that he had completely changed my story. The structure of the piece was similar, but the editor had redone all of the interviews and rewrote the entire piece.

You could say I was a little mad. At my university and many other colleges and media outlets, we practice “no-surprises” journalism. This means that the people or groups that you are writing about aren’t surprised when they see their names in print. I was most frustrated by the fact that he hadn’t told me he was going to change my article. In this instance, the published story was no longer one I had written. Even though it was the cover story for that issue, I wished my name wasn’t attached to it.

Because the publication wasn’t officially associated with the university, there was nothing I could do about it. When I tried to confront the editor, he lied and pretended that he had told me about the changes and that he was going to add his name to the byline. The advice I got from professors boiled down to: What he did was wrong, but there isn’t much we can do about it. As it was an independent publication, he couldn’t face disciplinary action nor easily be removed from his position.

At the same time, this case also presents an opportunity. While these sorts of situations happen at every level of journalism, from high school publications to The New York Times, college is a place for journalists to do things that are ethically questionable and learn from them. While it was not okay that any of the students plagiarized, both in and outside of the classroom, they can hopefully learn from the experience. They say college is all about making mistakes, and it is better to be fired from your college paper or fail a class for plagiarizing than lose your first job out in the real world and be blacklisted for the rest of your career.

While classes are where journalists learn the tools of the trade, these skills are only put into practice out in the real world. Discussions around ethics should be further integrated into journalism curriculums and not just confined to visiting lecturers. But to be considered professional media outlets, student publications should be leaders in ethics, not only to limit plagiarism, but help mold better journalists.

Written By: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank | University of Oregon