Do They Get That It’s Wrong?

Plagiarism issues are on the rise.

Perhaps Liane Membis, the Wall Street Journal intern fired recently for inventing quotes, started out with noble intentions. As Miss Black America-Connecticut last year, she spoke against high illiteracy rates among African American children and of wanting to represent black women “in a positive light.” We’d assume that Membis, a Yale graduate, brought these ideals to her internship at one of the nation’s most prominent dailies.

So what happened? How did her high ideals come crashing down so horribly? As odd as it may seem, she may not have thought she was doing anything so terribly wrong. As the director of the MA Journalism Program at Hofstra University on Long Island (and a former adjunct at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism), Membis’s transgressions probably should surprise me, but they don’t. Many students these days are amazed—I mean, truly baffled—when confronted with their own unethical behavior. Whether they’ve plagiarized material already published by someone else, or invented sources and quotations outright, I’ve found in more then 10 cumulative years of teaching at both institutions that more often than not the fabricators just don’t get that what they did was wrong. They’re more stunned than embarrassed; they’re more indignant than repentant. Looking into their eyes, I just don’t see the kind of flushed, visceral shame that you might expect from such acts. Unethical behavior is a huge problem on most college campuses, and although faculty and administrators are doing their best to tighten regulations, plagiarism, in particular, is on the rise.

Why, is still something of a mystery. The usual theory among journalism educators has to do with the cut-and-paste and sampling culture of the Internet, which has forever eroded boundaries between “original” and stolen work. But it seems to me that something more insidious is happening here. Could it be, that even when faced with dictionary descriptions of “plagiarism” and “fabrication”—terms that are discussed in most journalism classes at the beginning of each semester—some students simply agree to disagree?

For Jonah Lehrer, whose recent “self-plagiarism” at the New Yorker was discovered just two weeks into a coveted staff appointment, the habit of reprinting copy that he’d already published elsewhere was par for the course. His editors may have assumed that “everybody knows” not to do that, but do they?

A former student who worked part time at a local retail store was asked by her employer to promote holiday services on the store’s website, which she did. Later, this material (essentially a press release) was reformatted by the student and handed in for class credit, as though it were a new and original work of journalism. The student received a fail for the assignment and a stern warning about the difference between for-profit promotion and journalism, as well as the problem of conflicting interests. Several weeks later, the student tried to pass off the very same “article” with another professor.

Are they really not getting it? Or maybe, young journalists just aren’t buying what we’re selling.

“Are you understanding the meaning of plagiarism?” I asked one offender who’d appeared before a committee to make an appeal. It had been explained to her in writing that she plagiarized by reprinting passages verbatim, without attribution, from press releases and government publications.

Still, she hesitated.

“I mean, the word plagiarism to me is a hurtful word,” she answered finally. What she’d done hadn’t been “malicious,” she said. To her mind, there could be no wrongdoing without intent. “I guess I should have properly attributed,” she finally conceded, reluctantly, and not at all convincingly in the committee’s view. It’s unlikely that the student will be allowed to return to the university.

At Hofstra, academic dishonesty becomes even more egregious according to university policy when the student is “unwilling or unable to recognize the seriousness of the offense.”

“I apologize for … falsifying and plagiarizing my work,” another student wrote to a professor recently, blaming the transgression on “stress and a recent death in the family.”“I attempted to take the easy way out,” the student wrote. “I know that my actions are wrong and for that I am deeply sorry … I will redo the assignment in the most ethical way … [and] never again attempt to falsify my work.” The student was given a second chance, which she used to resubmit the work with the very same plagiarized passages as the original.

Thankfully, there are shining stars who recognize the seriousness of their offenses and are all the better for them.

A top student in an advanced reporting class once quoted a press officer who apparently didn’t exist—at least not in that office. The mistake was a result, she said, of getting her notes “confused.” This time, however, something was different. The student was clearly mortified, and spent the rest of the semester working overtime to make it right.

“I think it was you who told us that journalists are less trusted than lawyers,” she told me recently. “That definitely made me want to make sure that every interview I [did] was on the books and notated properly.”

And how does she feel about what happened now, in hindsight?

“That’s the kind of stuff you gotta learn from,” she said.

POSTED: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - 4:33pm
UPDATED: Monday, December 8, 2014 - 9:22am
Media Law Center for Ethics and Access