Should student newspapers name fabulists and plagiarists?

Last October, Megan Card searched through more than two years' worth of stories in University of South Dakota student paper The Volante. She was following up on a tip, looking for proof that a student on the paper was making things up.

Card, then the paper's editor-in-chief, found that reporter Joey Sevin had cited several sources — 10 in all — that couldn't be verified using university records.

“You read about people like Jayson Blair and you think, it could never happen," Card said in a recent interview. "And then you go through a similar situation and you realize the kind of mentality people have to have to just go completely against everything you learned in journalism school.”

She fired Sevin. But then, she took another step: she identified him in an editor's column.

Card's decision to name Sevin puts her in one of two camps among student editors — those who say identifying fabricators and plagiarists is necessary to preserve a publication's integrity, and those who warn that public identification can snuff out careers before student journalists ever see the inside of a professional newsroom.

Card said she felt obligated to publish the offender's identity. After all, the paper would go public with a fibbing campus administrator — why should their reporters be treated any differently?

“If a source had done something like lied to us, we would have used their name," she said. "And I don’t know why we should be any less accountable for our actions.”

Last October, the newsroom of The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University was divided over a similar issue: whether to identify a student who cited several sources the newspaper was unable to confirm, said Sally Asher, who was then the paper's editor-in-chief. She says she agonized over the decision, but ultimately penned a column detailing the misdeeds without naming the student responsible.

Asher says she would identify the student if she had to make the decision again today. But when she wrote the column, she was worried about destroying the student's career.

“At that point, I was kind of scared of the responsibility of totally ruining her life,” Asher said.

Levi Meyer wrestled with that same problem last October, when he was editor-in-chief of The Criterion, the student newspaper at Colorado Mesa University. After he learned the paper's online editor had plagiarized from a variety of sources, including The Associated Press, Jezebel and The New York Post, he was "furious," he said. He fired the offender but decided not to identify her in a column to readers.

“We obviously would have named her and at that point she would have never been able to get a job in the journalism industry," Meyer said. "Her career would be killed with a single Google search.”

The "eternal memory of the Web" puts a big burden on student editors when they are weighing whether to publicly identify offenders, said David Folkenflik, a media correspondent for NPR. News stories and corrections that set the record straight could come back to haunt plagiarizers and fabricators when they apply for jobs.

Folkenflik has firsthand experience dealing with misconduct in student media. He handled a case of plagiarism in 1990, shortly after he was named editor-in-chief of his student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Folkenflik was moving into the editor's office when he found a manila envelope addressed to him from his predecessor in the top drawer of his new desk. Inside, he found a column written by one of the paper's op-ed columnists and a column the student had cribbed from. Upon further investigation, he realized that the entirety of the column was cobbled together using material from the other story.

“To me, it was like being hit on the head with a ball-peen hammer,” he said.

Folkenflik asked the plagiarist to write an apology for the paper and dismissed her. He said he would still name plagiarists if he were a student editor today, even though the proliferation of Web archives and search engines would make it easier for employers to identify the student as a plagiarizer.

“This isn’t high school," Folkenflik said. "College isn’t quite the professional world, but people are learning to act like adults and recognize their actions have consequences."

There can also be consequences for the news organizations that hire these students. After Jayson Blair was outed as a serial plagiarist at The New York Times, some of his former classmates at the University of Maryland sent a letter to administrators of the journalism school saying they tried unsuccessfully to warn faculty members about ethical problems during Blair's tenure as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper there.

The letter details one instance where Blair allegedly lifted quotes from an Associated Press story while covering a football game between the University of Maryland and the University of Georgia for the student paper. In that same story, Blair quoted a student, "freshman undecided major Eric Bouch," whose identity could not be confirmed using university records, according to the letter.

"Mr. Blair's disgraceful behavior at The New York Times resembled a recurring pattern we witnessed when he worked at The Diamondback, including his time as editor-in-chief from 1996-1997," the letter reads.

Student newspapers can be at a disadvantage when dealing with students who commit ethical violations because they lack the institutional memory professional papers have, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center. Because of graduation, many college papers have an entirely new staff every two years, and some don't have a faculty adviser to help guide them through tough ethical choices.

“When you’re trying to maintain consistency year after year after year, it doesn’t help that you have a memory dump every two years,” LoMonte said.

Further complicating matters for student editors is the additional layer of bureaucracy on college campuses, LoMonte said. In one instance, Jason Ally, the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, faced expulsion from the university's Honor Committee after he published an editor's note describing an instance of plagiarism. He was charged with "breaching the confidentiality of another student," according to the Associated Press. A student jury decided to drop the case.

Student journalists are caught between professional and academic roles, which complicates ethical decisions, said Christopher Meyers, director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics at California State University, Bakersfield. If a student was suspected of academic dishonesty in class, they would be entitled to a discreet review. But journalism is conducted in public, which changes the expectations of privacy.

Although he says student editors should err on the side of identification, those decisions aren't black and white.

"Context always matters in good ethics reasoning," Meyers said in an email to Poynter. "How egregious is the violation? What position does the reporter have? What was the story about? Were others' reputations damaged by the violation?"

Professional newspapers aren't uniform in the way they handle cases of plagiarism, said Norman Lewis, a journalism professor at the University of Florida. Lewis, who examined 76 cases of newspaper plagiarism for his dissertation on newspaper plagiarism, said news organizations sometimes run corrections that identify the offense without naming the offender. They have also run separate news stories explaining particularly egregious episodes — as The New York Times did with Jayson Blair.

Lewis says editors should make a distinction between plagiarism and fabrication when it comes time to take corrective action. Plagiarism is an error, and newspapers should identify the offender by name only if the paper names staffers responsible for other errors. Fabricators, on the other hand, should be identified in a separate news story because their misconduct affects reader understanding of what actually happened.

Regardless, students who fabricate and plagiarize should be treated the same way as their professional counterparts, he said.

"If you’re old enough to vote for the president of the free world, you’re old enough to avoid plagiarism," he said.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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