Pack Pride is a pretty typical sports fan website. Targeted toward supporters of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the site offers a regular diet of team news, game breakdowns, and gossip.
There’s also a vibrant message board where users engage in online conversations about college sports, argue and grouse about N.C State’s teams, and — not infrequently — talk smack about their rival in nearby Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (whom Pack Pride members often deride as the “Tar Holes”).
This month, the discussions went beyond the usual taunts. Several message board users scrutinized documents in the spirit of investigative journalism and discovered that a prominent Tar Heel student athlete apparently plagiarized one of his college term papers. The revelation raised further questions about academic integrity at UNC, which already is the subject of a long-running NCAA investigation.
The discovery also helped set the news agenda for the mainstream media and sports blogs. The blog Sportsbybrooks.com picked up the Pack Pride members’ finding, and the Raleigh News & Observer this week ran a front page story that stemmed from the allegations first raised by message board users. The story also has been featured by Sports Illustrated and other media organizations.
“You’ve got fans now that can break stories,” said Pack Pride managing editor James Henderson, who noted that many of his site’s visitors feel the media has been too timid in its coverage of ethical lapses in UNC’s football program. “The fans on our site feel like there’s a lot there if you dig into it, and that’s what they’re doing.”
“I can’t wait till the media gets this.”
In fact, the Pack Pride fan forum has been buzzing about the UNC investigation for more than a year, when the NCAA first began looking into allegations of academic misconduct and other rules violations among Tar Heel players.
The latest revelations involve one of the more complicated aspects of the multi-faceted investigation – the saga of defensive end Michael McAdoo, whom the NCAA ruled permanently ineligible to play. NCAA investigators concluded that McAdoo received too much help with his class work from an academic tutor. In one instance, they said the tutor helped write the bibliography for McAdoo’s term paper in an African studies class.
Both McAdoo and UNC officials criticized the NCAA’s permanent suspension as too harsh, and McAdoo filed a lawsuit to reverse the decision. The suspect term paper was included among more than 200 pages of court documents in the case, which the News & Observer and other media organizations posted to the Web earlier this month.
Almost immediately, Pack Pride members began poring over the documents, and several detected that the issues with McAdoo’s paper went beyond the bibliography page. One message board user – who goes by the name “WufWuf1” – pasted a portion of the paper into Google and found a section was copied directly from an article written in 1911. (He became suspicious of the passage’s stilted writing and reference to “Mohammedanism,” an older term for Islam that’s rarely heard today.)
“LOLOLOL,” wrote “WufWuf1” in one of his posts. “I can’t wait till the media gets this and breaks this down. Let’s help.”
Quickly, other users found more passages that are identical to earlier published works. One poster ran the paper through an online plagiarism detector and reported that more than one-third of it appeared to be lifted from Internet sources. (The Pack Pride message board thread is archived here; registration is required.)
Pack Pride users extensively documented their findings – providing an impressively well-researched blueprint of how McAdoo apparently cut-and-pasted the paper together.
“It really started up on our boards as somebody kind of stumbling on it,” Henderson said in a phone interview. “A couple of them started reading the paper and noticed some words that aren’t used anymore, and that opened their eyes. It just kind of took off from there.”
“WufWuf1” declined to reveal his identity because of concerns that he’ll suffer retribution from UNC supporters. In an email, he said his plagiarism research was “no real earth shaking event.”
“Simply saw the [term] paper among the News & Observer document dump,” he wrote. “The way the story launched to a national story and perpetuates today is simply due to the fact that it rings true against a backdrop of untruth perpetuated by UNC up to this point.”
Sportsbybrooks.com took note of the N.C. State fans’ research and wrote about it July 7. The News & Observer, which failed to notice the apparent plagiarism when it originally posted McAdoo’s term paper on its website, followed up on the Pack Pride discovery with a pair of stories.
“These guys clearly hit upon something, no question about it,” said News & Observer investigative reporter Dan Kane, part of the newspaper’s team covering the UNC football investigation.
To his credit, while Kane’s follow-up stories were inspired by the message board revelations, he did more than just repeat the anonymous fans’ findings. For his July 17 front page article, Kane and his colleague Lorenzo Perez conducted their own research to confirm that McAdoo committed “obvious plagiarism.” He questioned why UNC’s Honor Court overlooked the ethical lapse, and he sought interviews with several people involved in the story.
(One of the few who was willing to talk, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, told the newspaper that he wished his own university had discovered the plagiarism before a rival school’s fans did, but he continued to support McAdoo’s reinstatement to the football team.)
“Obviously you always want to get scoops.” Kane said. “But when we learned about it, we moved on it very quickly, and we followed up with a much more extensive story.”
Journalists, fans help each other
Indeed, the McAdoo case shows how journalists and the public can play off of each other’s work to advance information. The Pack Pride members were able to easily access the suspect term paper because the News & Observer and other media organizations posted it to the Web. Then, the message board users presented well-documented and credible findings that sparked the newspaper to raise more questions and investigate further.
“One of the reasons you put the documents online is to get that kind of feedback,” Kane said. “A lot of times you put a record up there, and somebody spots something that you may not have seen. Sometimes there’s an even better follow-up story.”
That kind of crowdsourcing requires journalists to thoroughly verify allegations before reporting them, especially in cases like this where fans have an obvious interest in sullying the name of a rival school. While the News & Observer independently verified the Pack Pride users’ findings, it’s not clear that every blog and media organization did so in reporting the story.
“The words ‘fan forum’ and ‘academic integrity’ form an extremely combustible mix,” said Penn State University sports journalism professor Malcolm Moran. “If I were covering this as a reporter, I would be proceeding with caution at every turn because of the nature of this kind of accusation and the lasting mark it can make on somebody’s reputation.”
This week, as the plagiarism story continued to trickle through the mainstream media, the regulars at Pack Pride monitored the coverage and congratulated each other for helping advance it.
“Your actions will likely be the turning point,” one poster wrote to WufWuf1. “It is easy for the media to ignore rumors, coded messages, and promises of big things to come. However, when WufWuf actually gave them something they could bite into, bite they did.”
Adam Hochberg, a Fellow with Poynter’s Sense-Making Project, also teaches at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication.