Adventures in Ethics and Science

The Colorado Springs Gazette discovered that a summer intern in their newsroom published articles with plagiarized passages. The editor of the paper, Jeff Thomas, deemed this plagiarism a breach of the paper’s trust with the public:

[R]eporter Hailey Mac Arthur, a college student doing a summer internship in our newsroom, has been dismissed from The Gazette. The Gazette forbids plagiarism, which is the act of employing the creative work of someone else and passing it off as your own. None of the four Gazette articles attributed borrowed material to the [New York] Times, as is required when quoting the work of some other publication.

Here are selected excerpts from the four Gazette stories, paired with links to the Times news stories from which material was inappropriately borrowed. …


The side-by-side comparisons are pretty damning. (I found it interesting that the plagiarized bits included both New York Times articles from last month and articles dating back to 1987. Mac Arthur apparently went to some trouble to steal just the right turn of phrase for each article.)

Thomas continues:

Every day, tens of thousands of citizens come to The Gazette and gazette.com in good faith, expecting from us in return that we will report the news as accurately, completely and originally as possible. That good-faith relationship is the foundation of all that makes The Gazette a viable enterprise. Without trust in our journalism, there is no business. For breaching that trust, I apologize to all Gazette readers.

The reaction in the comments to the Gazette‘s transparency in identifying these instances of plagiarism and the identity of the reporter who committed them is rather mixed. Some of the commenters argue that this is the youthful mistake of a college student who couldn’t be expected to know any better, and so splashing her name across the internet will unfairly kill her future in journalism. (Does this sound familiar?) Others argue that a sophomore in a journalism program ought to have an inkling of what plagiarism is, and that plagiarism is bad.

Indeed, the cached bio Mac Arthur posted on her blog (which is now set to “private”) suggests that in her own estimation, she was savvy to the ways of journalism:

I am an award-winning journalist and second-year student at the University of Florida, working toward a bachelor of science in journalism and a bachelor of arts in economics. UF’s College of Journalism and Communications touts one of the top 10 journalism schools in the nation, you know.

I will return to school in August after completing a summer reporting internship on the metro desk of The Gazette (cir. 96,000), located at the foot of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Colo. Track my stories written for The Gazette – three spread across A1 during my first two weeks – at the progress page. …

To date, I’ve completed reporting and writing internships with The Gainesville Sun (cir. 50,000) and Home: Living in the Heart of Florida magazine (cir. 30,000).

Still other commenters on The Gazette site argue that someone else at the paper must share responsibility for allowing Mac Arthur’s plagiarism to be published — that an editor ought to have been monitoring the intern’s output for plagiarized passages.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I have to believe that a student in a top 10 journalism school, who has already interned for another newspaper and a magazine, and who has won at least one journalism award, must be presumed to be aware of the minimal standards of ethical journalism. Between her professors and the people supervising her earlier internships, someone must have been communicating important information about what good journalism looks like, right? If Mac Arthur didn’t manage to absorb any of those lessons, sidelining her is not just in the interests of the paper’s readers, but also in her own interest. And if we’re to the point where articles must be run through Turnitin.com before they are typeset, then it’s time to abandon the journalistic profession altogether.

Whatever obligations The Gazette may have to interns like Mac Arthur, the paper has an even greater obligation to its readers to provide articles that conform to standards of good journalism. Thomas’s article suggests that the editor takes that responsibility seriously.

Here’s hoping that Mac Arthur’s journalism professors at UF are ready to help her learn from her breach — or, if that’s impossible at this point, to help steer her in the direction of a major where she won’t further damage the public trust.

Hat-tip: Abel Pharmboy

Comments

  1. #1 Jude
    July 8, 2009

    As a high school librarian, it seems to me that fewer students seem interested in a) plagiarism and b) copyright violations perhaps in part because of our mashup/download/everything_for_free on the internet culture. It’s hard to make them care or realize that there are serious consequences for lying, cheating, and stealing.

  2. #2 Patrick
    July 9, 2009

    The idea that this student didn’t know what plagiarism is and that it’s wrong is absurd. You don’t get that far in college, esp as a journalism student, and not know. This student just didn’t care.

    From my personal experience (worth nothing, I know), I had a solid grasp of it by the time I hit highschool, if not earlier. And I was a math/science geek who didn’t have to write a lot.

    I think the paper is right in calling out the student by name.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    July 9, 2009

    Very disappointing to me on so many levels, not the least of which is that I am a Gator alum. She also had a previous B.S. in economics so she is not just some young kid. The fact that she lifted from articles from 1987 and 1999 leads me to think she thought no one would catch her.

    I can imagine (and hope) that the editors of The Gainesville Sun are also looking today at her past work while she interned there.

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    July 9, 2009

    Jude– there’s a huge difference between plagiarism and copyright violation. Many of the things that today are considered copyright violation are not plagiarism at all. The production of a “derivative work”, for example, can include no plagiarism whatsoever, but is covered by copyright. Or, consider the example of the documentary about modern life that includes a brief clip of a TV screen in the background showing a piece of a TV show– something that is copyright violation if not licensed (a claim that seems to be legally true but which I personally consider absurd), but is clearly not plagiarism, for nobody would believe that the documentary maker is claiming that what was on the TV was his own creative work.

    Re: remix and mashups, original and creative work *can* be done by remixing and mashing up the work of other people. If not, the Andy Warhol was a plagiarist in a lot of the things that he did. I do understand that freely accepting that can make it more difficult to understand plagiarism– but a black and white “all copying in all contexts is wrong” view is not productive for creativity and transformative work. We need to be a bit more sophisticated about considering plagiarism and copyright and so froth, and not “hit the rails” by insisting that you have a choice between “all copying is bad” and “all copying is OK nowadays”.

  5. #5 Abel Pharmboy
    July 9, 2009

    Janet, here’s an interesting follow-up today from Colo Spgs Gazette editor Jeff Thomas in his blog post (“What are interns for?”) responding to reader questions that, “gasp! – how are they letting interns write copy?”

    But in the news business, you don’t learn reporting and writing by watching it being done. You learn reporting and writing by reporting and writing. That was the way my internship worked 25 years ago. I covered government, I covered the county fair, I took photos and developed film, I rewrote press releases — sometimes I had the entire newsroom to myself, usually on weekends. What was expected of me remains expected today: Even a college student is expected to live up to the axioms of journalism. Their work must be as accurate and original as they can make it. Honest mistakes are tolerated. Intentional deceit, i.e., plagiarism, is not. [emphasis mine]

    I like Mr Thomas.

  6. #6 antipodean
    July 9, 2009

    I have two questions:

    1. Isn’t a bachelor of science in journalism an oxymoron?

    2. Would they have hung her out to dry quite so openly if she was a staff journalist instead of an unpaid intern? (internships seemingly being designed to exclude poor kids from entering career paths)

  7. #7 Larry Ryckman
    July 16, 2009

    In response to antipodean: The answer to your second question is an emphatic “yes.” We treated Hailey as a professional, and we held her to the same professional standards that we expect from all reporters in our newsroom — interns or staff. By the way, most of our other interns are paid.

    Larry Ryckman
    Gazette managing editor

  8. #8 DuWayne
    July 18, 2009

    I find this notion that she might not have known what she did was wrong, rather insulting. I’m in my second semester of college and every class that I have taken thus far, that requires papers of any sort, have gone through a discussion on plagiarism. And my college research and writing class spent two full sessions and touched on it half a dozen times more.

    And I’m in a community college, not a top journalism program. Sorry, but I have absolutely no sympathy and would have happily hung her out to dry. Depending on the level of offense and reasonable assumption you should know better (like having taken a class that goes into detail about it), one could potentially get booted out of my school for plagiarism. At the least, most instructors would be inclined to throw you out of their class for an egregious violation.

    It is rather disturbing to me, that anyone would defend this women. But given the crap that I’ve found while googling examples of various formats for papers, I am not surprised. The vast majority of hits I end up getting, are from sites that want to sell me a paper to turn in as my own work.

  9. #9 antipodean
    July 22, 2009

    Thanks Larry. Good to know.

    Pay all your interns. That way you’re not just selecting from the children of the wealthy. You’ll get better employees in the long run.