Monday, October 8, 2012

The plagiarism problem

A student at the Penn State daily paper was recently suspended for plagiarism and inventing quotations for a story, something that happens occasionally on student papers across the country.  I'm not aware of incidents of plagiarism or fabrication at The Orion, but I think it's a good idea to make these journalistic deadly sins a topic of conversation so everyone on the staff understands just how serious they are.

Mallory Jean Tenore just posted a piece on The Poynter Institute's blog that surveys how several student dailies are dealing with plagiarism at the policy level and in the day-to-day bustle of producing their papers. It prompted me to take a look at The Orion's own policies and think about what I'm doing as adviser about the issue.

Here's what the handbook, which all staff members are required to read, says:

Plagiarism of Words, Art, Other

Plagiarism is prohibited and is illegal if the material is copyright protected. For the purposes of this code, plagiarism is defined as the word-for-word duplication of another person’s writing. A comparable prohibition applies to the use of graphics. Information obtained from a published work must be independently verified before it can be reported as a new, original story. Staffers who plagiarize are subject to disciplinary penalties, including possible termination from the staff and course failure.

Fabrication of Any Kind

The use of composite characters or imaginary situations or characters or quotes will not be allowed. Immediate termination and an “F” grade for the course are the penalties.

That seems pretty clear. The problem at Penn State and other papers isn't policy, though. It's prevention. What can reporters do to avoid doing the wrong thing? What can editors do to help them?

Like other papers, The Orion requires multiple sourcing when facts are presented in a story. That's a great first step, and it might have prevented the plagiarism and invention cited in the Poynter article... but maybe not.

Here are some further suggestions:
• When stories are assigned, editors should work with their writers to develop a list of potential sources. When it's time to edit the story, the list should be revisited and the reporter asked if he or she used any other sources and what they were.
• Make every effort to first-edit stories face to face. The convenience of editing by email is a poor substitute for the interaction of editing in person.
• The editor should make it a habit during editing to ask "who says?" whenever facts are presented in a story.
• Reporters should be asked to bring their notebooks and audio tapes to editing sessions so they and their editors can review quotations together.
• If information is taken from news releases, websites and emails, those should be reviewed during the editing session to make sure they're used correctly and attributed properly.
• Examples of plagiarism and fabrication in other papers and websites should be posted on a bulletin board in the office so reporters and editors understand in a concrete way what the terms mean and what the consequences are for violating the rules.

An editor's healthy skepticism about the accuracy of stories during editing might seem harsh to writers at first, but if it becomes a normal part of editing,  plagiarism and fabrication are much less likely to become a problem.

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