No sane journalist or journalism student wakes up one day and says, “I’m going to model my career after Jayson Blair.” Yet the numbers of perpetrators of plagiarism and story fabrication grow as journalists resign or are forced out under suspicion: Robin Gregg at the New York Post, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle and USA Today’s Jack Kelley. Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg angrily defended his columns written with significant assistance from stringers and interns. He doesn’t work for the New York Times anymore.
Studies dating from Bill Bowers’ work in the early 1960s to Donald McCabe’s current research show that between two-thirds to three-quarters of all undergraduates admit to cheating sometime in their college years. Why should student journalists be any different from their classmates in other majors or from some of the most revered journalists in the profession?
Marianne Heim, a junior broadcasting student at Colorado State University, said she believes students who plagiarize just do not understand its harm. “I think students are more concerned about what the consequences would be for themselves if they plagiarize, not how it impacts the other party,” she said.
Meanwhile, the number of media ethics classes in journalism schools has increased steadily over the past three decades, according to studies by ethics educators Edmund Lambeth, Clifford Christians and their colleagues. While schools of journalism by and large teach the evils of plagiarism throughout their curriculum, these schools, their faculty and their students can be caught by surprise.
At the University of Georgia
Two students at the University of Georgia paid for plagiarism with their diplomas – at least for now. The students will graduate after making up the one-credit practicum they failed, said John Soloski, dean of the university’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
UGA senior David Kross covered a bike race and failed to reach the winners’ table to see the results, Soloski said. Kross looked up race results from the Athens Banner-Herald online and accidentally retrieved results from 2002. The article ran with the wrong winners on April 26, and a correction and retraction ran in the student newspaper, the Red and Black, the next day.
“I’m well-educated enough to know I did the wrong thing, and I apologize deeply for it,” Kross told the Athens Banner-Herald.
Soloski said Kross’ lapse in judgment was “not your typical plagiarism case for the college.”
Another UGA senior, Jessica Thomas, wrote a sentimental column about the University of Georgia, which recalled Athens’ experiences and traditions. The column ran in the Red and Black and was part of Thomas’ one-credit practicum at the University.
The column reminisced about football season, students watching instead of studying, and a T-shirt that read “Athens: It will get in your blood and stay forever.” And, so did another Red and Black column 10 years before. The Red and Black reported a reader recognized the familiarity in the tone and images from the 1994 column and alerted the staff via e-mail.
The Red and Black reported that Thomas said she had received the 1994 column in an e-mail four years ago, but added that Thomas claimed she did not know that borrowing ideas from the column was wrong.
Student plagiarism cases usually are kept private, but the publication of the stories in the independent student newspaper brought the case into public light. Soloski described both young journalists as good students who were deeply apologetic and embarrassed by their actions.
“I told one student I would be happy to act as a reference for him,” Soloski said.
Kross had written more than 60 articles at the Red and Black with no other reports of plagiarism. Editorial adviser Kate Carter said comparing Kross and Thomas to professional plagiarizers such as Blair and Kelley might not be accurate or fair.
“Neither had a trail of deception years long,” Carter said.
Drawing from Codes
Many, if not most, student newspapers specify in ethics codes that plagiarism is prohibited. The Indiana Daily Student lists plagiarism and fabrication first in its code. (See article)
Washington State University’s student publications code of ethics places plagiarism definitions immediately after clarifying the role of truth, and draws on language from the Associated Collegiate Press and Society of Professional Journalists. (See article)
The FSView covering Florida State University adopted the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics as its own, including plagiarism bans under “seek truth and report it.” (See article)
The Red and Black also takes steps to help UGA students understand what plagiarism is, including in its Principles of Ethical Guidelines based on the SPJ and Washington Post codes. However, Carter explains that the paper has 100 new students each semester, which makes keeping an eye on individuals difficult.
“What happened went against every guideline and everything we teach,” Carter said.
Having ethics guidelines and a plagiarism policy may not be enough, according to Colorado State University journalism student Christopher Ortiz.
“As soon as I entered Colorado State, I was always told there was a plagiarism policy, but I never actually was told what it was,” Ortiz said. “The school made an effort to tell students there was a policy that existed, but it failed in actually telling students what the policy entailed.”
Heim, his CSU classmate, said she doesn’t believe students “will go hunting for this (policy) unless they’re questioning what they can get away with or what will happen to them if they do plagiarize.”
Even drawing attention to plagiarism policies is no guarantee that students are committed to following them, said Dane S. Claussen, director of the journalism and mass communication graduate program at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
“Many of the students think that their professors are too lazy, too busy, or too dumb to catch them. Some of those students and others have gotten away with it before, certainly in junior high school and high school, sometimes in other college courses,” Claussen said.
But Elly Marx, a 2003 graduate of Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., does not believe most students, even those who plagiarize, are that devious.
Instead, students may not make a connection between what they are taught in class, the codes for their institution and student media, and what they need to do to be ethical in an individual story. That’s surprising considering how much emphasis was placed on not plagiarizing in her classes, Marx said.
Nonetheless, as a copy editor for her student newspaper, the Whitworthian, Marx found some young journalists “fuzzy as to where to draw the line with plagiarism. … Some reporters just didn’t seem to realize that they needed to attribute their facts.”
Getting the message
In many college policies around the United States, professors report suspicion of student dishonesty and then a meeting may be scheduled with the student, professor and a third-party mediator to discuss what occurred.
“Students have told me that they are actually happy that they were reported for a violation because they didn’t know what they did was considered dishonest,” said Debbie Bell, UGA’s coordinator for academic honesty.
This may seem to contradict Soloski’s assertion that the dos and don’ts of ethics are drilled into the students from the start of their college career. Clearly, plagiarism is addressed in journalism schools, but for whatever reason, journalism students and then journalism graduates may not be getting the message.
Because of the Internet savvy that seems to come with being part of today’s generation, students have access to more information and tools than previous student journalists.
“I feel students think they have the upper hand in the technology used to plagiarize, (such as) the Internet, buying papers online, copy and paste,” Ortiz said.
One of the difficulties facing teaching ethics to students may be the values of a generation “that has no problem downloading songs off the Internet,” said UGA associate professor Barry Hollander.
If copyright laws are perceived as irrelevant when it comes to the Internet, then perhaps free information can be perceived as credit-less as well. The ethical leap from failing to pay for music to failing to credit sources may not be far.
But Heim notes that the Internet can be a mixed blessing. The Internet makes finding sources to plagiarize easier, while making it also easier to catch someone trying to plagiarize.
Cheating may seem a normal activity for some students, said Bill Silcock, assistant professor of broadcast journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. That doesn’t mean it’s normal for most. He leaves the classroom during quizzes in effort to instill a sense of responsibility.
“Other students keenly notice when students cheat” and grieve over their classmates’ lapses, Silcock said.
Wendy Coursen, a 2004 ASU graduate now on a Fulbright Scholarship to Macedonia, said she heard fellow students discussing questions during an exam when a professor was not present and decided to take some action on her own.
“I was stunned. I didn’t look away from my test, but said, ’Please! We’re training to be ethical journalists here.’ The other student said something like, ’I don’t think this has anything to do with ethics.’ I responded, ’Well, some of us do,’ ” Coursen said.
“Fortunately, the outright cheating ceased, but I was severely disappointed and talked about it with the professor after everyone else had left,” she said. “He told me another student had relayed the story and was also disturbed by it and was grateful I’d spoken up.”
But isn’t it obvious?
Jayson Blair’s antics may or may not become a staple of media ethics textbooks because his choices are just so obviously outside the mainstream of journalism practice.
“Calling Jayson Blair a serious case of media ethics is like charging a hit-and-run driver with being impolite — it misses the point,” said Patrick Plaisance, an associate professor at Colorado State University. “He and the others represent clear violations of clear journalistic standards. There’s no murky gray area. End of discussion.”
Plaisance says there are simply many other ethical cases that require critical thinking and pose true dilemmas.
Hollander said his UGA ethics students devote time and analysis to subtle issues: showing cases, examples and consequences. He said he always thought the bigger issues, such as plagiarism, did not need as much explanation.
“Now, I’m going to start slamming them on the basics,” Hollander said, adding that having two recent examples of what happens when students plagiarize will probably help.
Journalism schools have a responsibility to build a safety net for their student journalists, Soloski said. “We’re not in the business of crucifying students.”
Students simply lack the experience of professionals. The harsh learning experience of not graduating may be punishment enough to keep students from plagiarizing again.
“Students should have a second chance; students are learning,” Hollander said.
Virginia Whitehouse is associate professor and head of the journalism and mass communication program at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash. Julia Nicholls is a 2004 Whitworth JMC graduate.