10 ways to prevent plagiarism, fabrication at college newspapers (and in any newsroom)

Multiple news organizations have recently found themselves in the middle of plagiarism and fabrication scandals — NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Time, CNN and The Boston Globe to name a few.

Last week, Penn State’s student newspaper The Daily Collegian suspended a writer for plagiarizing and fabricating quotes by Sue Paterno, the widow of former coach Joe Paterno. This was the paper’s second plagiarism case this year, and it marks the third time that a college newspaper has made headlines for plagiarism and fabrication in the past month. (In September, Arizona State University’s State Press and Columbia University’s Daily Spectator both revealed that students there had plagiarized.)

The incidents made me think about the particular challenges that student journalists face, and the steps that college newspapers can take to help them. I talked with editors-in-chief and media advisers from eight colleges and universities to find out what strategies they’ve developed to help prevent plagiarism and fabrication and where they fall short.

Define plagiarism/fabrication

It’s easy to assume that students should know what constitutes plagiarism and fabrication, but that’s not always the case. Many of the students writing for college newspapers — particularly underclassmen and students at colleges without J-schools — have never had previous journalism experience.

“A lot of student journalists don’t understand what qualifies as plagiarism simply because they haven’t written enough articles or read enough to grasp what it is,” Yasmeen Abutaleb, editor-in-chief of the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, The Diamondback, said via email. “I also think student journalists don’t understand that they should be striving to confirm and get facts themselves, rather than taking them from another news source — which could easily lead to plagiarism. And a lot of it stems from not understanding how to properly attribute.” Some students, Abutaleb noted, use information from other stories rather than doing their own reporting.

Talking with students about plagiarism and fabrication before an incident occurs is key. It’s also smart for advisers and editors-in-chief to talk with student journalists about “patchwriting.”

This practice, which tends to be more common than plagiarism, involves relying heavily on source material and changing it only slightly by rearranging phrases and changing tenses. A recent study shows the practice is especially prevalent among college students.

“The college newsroom is fraught with peril. Many students arrive without a clue of what it takes to create original work,” said Poynter Faculty Member Kelly McBride, who recently wrote about patchwriting. “It’s actually crazy how little support we give student journalists compared to what we expect.”

Set clear expectations

To help prevent plagiarism and fabrication, college newspapers need to be upfront with students about the consequences they’ll face.

“At our new staff orientation, one of the very first things we tell people is that fabrication and plagiarism won’t be tolerated and you won’t be able to continue to work here if you do it,” Erica Beshears Perel, newsroom adviser to the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel, said by phone.

David Swartzlander, journalism department chairman and assistant professor at Doane College in Nebraska, tells students that he’ll fail them and pursue the possibility of getting them suspended from the college if they plagiarize or fabricate. Many of his students write stories for both his class and the student newspaper The Doane Owl.

Swartzlander, who is also the adviser of The Doane Owl and president of the College Media Association, enacted these strict consequences after one of his students fabricated a quote and attributed it to a local judge.

“The story hit page one of our paper and the judge was furious, to put it mildly. He had a right to be,” Swartzlander said via email. “My error, though was to allow that student to stay in the class and to keep submitting work. After that story, he was ostracized by the editors. … The student felt horrible, and I realized then that it would have been better for all involved had I removed him from that class, if not the school. You live and learn.”

Offer training to writers and editors

After The Daily Collegian had its first brush with plagiarism earlier this year, it began offering a training session about plagiarism. The session is part of the paper’s “Candidate Program” — a training program that all new staffers are required to participate in before they’re assigned to a beat.

The paper’s adviser, Jim Rodenbush, leads the session and teaches students how to properly cite sources, handle press releases, work from the transcript of a press conference they didn’t attend, and more.

“Right now, the training is only administered to incoming staff members and people who are in leadership positions who would disseminate the information they learn to their staff,” Editor-in-Chief Casey McDermott said by phone. “One of the things we’re looking at doing is establishing this session for all staffers who fall in between.”

Though helpful, training doesn’t always prevent plagiarism. The student who plagiarized and fabricated the Paterno quotes, McDermott said, had taken the training course.

Some school newspapers, such as The Ball State Daily News and The Tufts Daily, don’t offer any formal training on plagiarism prevention. “At the beginning of the year, we talk about how you need more than one source on a story and that if someone says something you don’t change it and you attribute the quote. That’s about all we talk about with staffers,” said Benjamin Dashley, editor-in-chief of The Ball State Daily News. “The minimal training is also rooted in the fact that we have such a high rate of turnover because we can only pay a small amount of our members.”

Poynter’s McBride stressed the importance of training staffers — not just once a year but throughout the year.

“If I were a college newspaper editor or an adviser, I’d start out every year with a day of workshops that addressed the creative process, the writing process and ethical standards,” she said. “Then I’d have monthly staff meetings to review successes and failures.”

Seek teachable moments, let students know help is available

Even students who have gone through training may still need help with sourcing and attribution.

“Often, I will see freshmen quote the president of the United States in a [local story],” Swartzlander said. “I’ll turn to the writer to ask: ‘When did you interview the president?’ They’ll often give me a blank look and say they saw the interview on TV and quoted from it. And that’s where the teachable moment happens. But that’s not malicious.”

McDermott said The Daily Collegian editors encourage students to come to them for help. Her hope is that students will be less inclined to plagiarize or fabricate if they know they can turn to their editors when they have attribution questions or are worried about meeting their deadlines.

“If students are running into a roadblock, we want to make it clear to them that their editor is there to help them,” McDermott said. “In my experience, we have a really, really supportive network of people. That being said, it can still be intimidating as a younger staff member starting out. I was afraid to ask how to use the phone when I first started, so I can definitely understand why people by nature would be afraid to ask for help.”

Create sourcing notes, accuracy surveys

The Daily Tar Heel and The Daily Collegian both ask students to include sourcing notes with their stories. The notes include links to relevant articles that students cite, as well as links to bio pages that include sources’ names and titles. The notes, Perel said, make students think more carefully about where they’re getting information, and they make it easier for editors to verify facts.

The Doane Owl sends all sources an accuracy survey after stories have been published. The survey asks, “Was the story fair and accurate?” “Were your name and title correct?” and “Were you quoted/attributed accurately?”

“We send the sources PDFs of the paper so that they can re-read the story to refresh their memories, if need be, but we normally send out the surveys within a day or two of publication,” Swartzlander said. “They don’t catch all of the errors, but they collect their fair share. And, surprisingly, most of the sources respond that they believe the story was fairly and accurately written.”

Have multiple editors look at each story

Many of the college newspapers I spoke with have rigorous editing processes, I learned. At The Daily Collegian, at least five editors typically look over each story — two beat editors, the managing editor, a copy editor and a copy desk chief.

Stories that come in later in the evening, however, usually receive just two rounds of editing — from a copy editor and a copy desk chief. Even when five editors look at stories, though, mistakes and plagiarism can still slip through. The Paterno story with plagiarized quotes last week had gone through five rounds of edits, McDermott said.

The University of Maryland’s Diamondback also requires that each story go through multiple editors. A section editor first looks at the story, then it goes through three more sets of edits. Similarly, at The Daily Tar Heel, all stories are seen by at least four pairs of eyes. “Ideally it’s to prevent errors from getting into the paper,” Perel said, “but I think it would also make it much harder for plagiarized material to get by the editors.”

Involve students in the editing process

As part of its extensive editing process, The Daily Tar Heel requires student writers to sit through the first three rounds of edits.

“We find it to be very educational and a good experience for writers to go through those edits and learn from them,” Perel said. “And we don’t ever want to be in a situation where a writer wakes up the next morning and doesn’t recognize their story because the editors have changed it so much.”

During the editing process, Daily Tar Heel editors ask writers an important question: “How do you know this?” Other questions to ask: “How did the interview go?” and “What was the person you interviewed like?”

If student writers know they’re going to be asked about their interviews, they may be less likely to fabricate quotes or scenes.

Revise the newspaper’s ethics guidelines

Many of the editors I spoke with said their papers have ethics codes that include a line or two about plagiarism. The Daily Collegian’s code of ethics, for example, has a line that says: “Do not use anyone else’s work, idea or phrase without proper attribution.” Below that is a line about truthfulness: “Be accurate and truthful with your sources and your news content at all times.”

That’s pretty standard language for an ethics code, but it doesn’t address the complexities of plagiarism and fabrication, and doesn’t explain the consequences.

The Daily Cardinal, one of two student newspapers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently updating its code of ethics to make it more useful. “It is such a complex issue, and I think writers need to be aware of how easy it can be to accidentally plagiarize without even thinking about it,” Editor-in-Chief Scott Girard said via email.

One key to effective ethics guidelines is to keep them updated. They should be living, breathing documents that are available online, not antiquated codes that always stay the same.

Use plagiarism software

Susannah Nesmith, faculty adviser of Barry University’s student newspaper The Barry Buccaneer, runs all stories through plagiarism detection software called Copyscape. While most professional news organizations have stayed away from using such software, Nesmith said she thinks it’s a valuable tool.

Since the Bucaneer’s student editors started using Copyscape in 2009, they’ve only caught one plagiarized passage, which had been lifted from Wikipedia.

“I think just the fact that the editors use it, and tell every writer about it, reinforces the point that plagiarism will not be tolerated. They’re so serious about it; they check every story before the paper goes to the printer,” Nesmith said via email. “I haven’t seen a downside. It’s a tool, like spell-check.”

Determine how the paper’s adviser can help

The College Media Association holds two conventions and one summer workshop each year to train advisers on issues such as plagiarism and fabrication.

It’s important, Swartzlander noted, for advisers to be knowledgeable on these topics so they can help student journalists deal with ethical issues as they arise — and find ways to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

“Advisers can play a significant role,” he said, “by strongly suggesting to students involved with the media that stories contain a certain number of sources, by sending accuracy surveys on a regular basis, by providing training on these issues at the beginning — and during — the school year and by constantly reminding reporters and editors that their job as journalists is to verify information.”

Sidebar: Meet IvyGate, the scourge of Ivy League plagiarists

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