Fighting plagiarism at journalism schools

Ellin Bessner

Ellin BessnerPrime Minister Stephen Harper’s speechwriters did it. So did Senator Barack Obama’s running mate. Joe Biden had to drop out of the presidential race back in the 1980s for lifting parts of speeches from other politicians, and delivering them as his own words.

The initial uproar in the North American media over the plagiarism accusations during both Canadian and U.S. presidential election campaigns prompted temporary public storms, but has since all but disappeared from the headlines.  For Harper and the Conservatives, the issue certainly didn’t impact his return to power on October 14. And it probably won’t make a difference to the Democrats’ chances in November south of the border.
This is too bad. It’s been overshadowing our efforts this year, as we continue here at Centennial College in Toronto, to try a new approach to eliminating plagiarism.

After all, why should journalism students worry about the consequences of plagiarism in the news industry and to their own careers, when they see their political leaders continuing with their careers after doing the same thing?

We started two years ago, when my colleagues and I began to see cases of students copying word for word from Internet sources and newspaper clippings in their course work.  We’d had 20 cases in a single school year.

The cases ranged from a student copying the story verbatim from a classmate (unbeknownst to the classmate), to lifting one line of copy from the website when rewriting copy for a sportscast that went to air on Centennial’s television news show.

And at the same time, we’d been dealing with the fallout from an earlier case of a student who was caught plagiarizing while out on internship with Now Magazine in Toronto. She had lifted one line for an entertainment blurb from the Internet. She was fired. She left the program. And it’s taken Centennial a long time to smooth over the hard feelings with that news organization to the point where they would even consider taking an intern from us.

We realized the old ways of haranguing and lecturing the students obviously weren’t working. So we consulted with Mary McGuire from Carleton’s journalism program, and Kim Kierans from the program at the University of King’s College, and other colleagues at Loyalist College and Humber College among others, to see what works for them. As a result, we beefed up our language in course outlines and we revised our program standards and penalties procedures, which we posted on the department website and handed out to all students. We also request source contact information, and do routine spot checks.

Then we did something else. I decided to first try to understand the reasons why journalism students were plagiarizing.  I asked them directly. Here’s what I found out:

A few students stole stuff from other sources out of laziness. Others say they did it out of panic, fear of getting a bad mark, needing to maintain a high GPA to qualify for scholarships, loans or grad school. Still others were poor time managers and took shortcuts to meet deadlines. Pub nights got in the way of filing stories. And, rarely, a student did it to see if the teacher would catch them.

But, for the most part, most students said they simply didn’t understand the concept of journalistic attribution, despite years in high school and university.

I also did some academic research on my own, and looking through the literature by experts such as Nick Russell and Robert Harris and Ted Frick.

We decided to try a proactive way to address the problem.

In the first month or so of every new school year, September and October, I visit the classrooms of first semester journalism students and lead an interactive workshop showing them exactly how NOT to plagiarize. Just like the television show on fashion How Not to Dress.

I use a funny PowerPoint presentation, complete with cute noises and sound effects, including a “Who wants to be a Millionaire” quiz and examples of what happens to journalits in Canada who commit plagiarism.

Sometimes I bring a big bag of cookies from the nearby Peek Freen outlet store. My presentation then gives a series of examples of how to attribute properly, how to do it for print, radio and television, how to quote from a website and how to handle photography, music and video which they didn’t produce themselves (Garage Band and Clip Art are okay, but only with the instructor’s permission).

We also discuss tricks and hints for how not to get into trouble. For example, one way is when you are researching on the Internet or from another source (and want to cut and paste) use a different font so you’ll remember it’s got to be attributed properly. Or they should close the website, and  write from memory, etc. I discourage cutting and pasting.

The students also get a thick handout with some cartoons, examples of Craig Silverman’s annual list of plagiarism cases and news clippings. Finally, we do a great quiz, which Ted Frick of the University of Indiana posts on his institution’s website for all to use.

I divide the students into 10 groups of 3 or 4 students each (there are 10 examples), and the students each get a chance to come up to the front and click on an answer. If it’s right, a nice little pop up tells them so.

At the end of the 90 minutes the students are asked to sign an academic honesty pledge based on an idea from the Columbia University journalism program and suggested by colleagues at the Ontario Journalism Educators Association. Most sign. It’s voluntary, but I tell them they are still covered by the provisions, even if they don’t.

We haven’t compiled statistics yet for 2008.

But with the  fall semester two months old, one of my colleagues turned up two more unsettling cases.  Both students were  about to graduate and both took my workshops.  One signed the pledge

In one case, the student said a relative provided them with information for their magazine article, and they didn’t think they needed to check or attribute where the stuff came from: it was word for word from an article on the Internet

This second case involved correctly attributing where on the Internet the questionable information came from, but failing to enclose the word for word citation in quotations marks.

So, I’ve now been thinking — are we back to the drawing board? Is this new approach failing? And is it even possible to reduce plagiarism in this day and age of cut and paste research, rip and read radio stations and online news websites ( sports, for instance) where they take files from other sources and attribute it in tiny print at the bottom, if at all?

For my part, I still think it’s worth the effort, despite the fact that dealing with campus plagiarism in journalism is extremely frustrating, time consuming and emotionally difficult for both the faculty members and the students and their families.

Dealing strictly with plagiarism allows other students to hear about it, if only unofficially, through student grapevine.

I’ll tell you what I tell the students:

1. Honesty and transparency in journalistic storytelling are worth striving for because readers and listeners demand it. Like the ingredients in nutrition labels on food.

2. Newsrooms will stop hiring interns and graduates from schools where students have a reputation for plagiarizing. So it cuts down the job market and opportunities for everyone.

3. Because it hurts the public trust, which journalists hold so precariously (they already see us as one step above car salesmen and lawyers, don’t they?)

As for Prime Minister Harper and Senators Obama and Biden, they may have been able to brush off their plagiarism accusations but some voters may see them as just a little less trustworthy, and you know, isn’t trust everything in politics and in the fourth estate?

A broadcast journalist since 1981, Carleton University
Journalism graduate, Ellin has been teaching journalism in the Toronto
area since 1999, at Ryerson University, Seneca College and now, on the
faculty of  Centennial College. A former foreign correspondent in
Europe, and business anchor at CTV Newsnet, she still works
occasionally as a reporter for CBC Radio in Toronto and as back up news
anchor at Jazz FM 91.1, as well as writing blogs, and articles for
local newspapers in the Toronto area.