Washington Post plagiarism case challenges educators who tell students not to break the rules

“We’ll deal with it on a case-by-case basis.”

For many of us that approach was the guiding force on how to handle breaking news in the early years of Web journalism at The Washington Post. It was one way of saying, “We’re not going to set rules since we we’re all kind of learning along the way.”

That was a reasonable approach. There are times when rules don’t apply. Journalists know this better than anyone else.

Yet, there has always been one area where the rule has been journalistic law: Plagiarism. At least I thought so.

The most recent plagiarism case involving The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz stealing sections of two stories from The Arizona Republic seems to indicate that the rules may no longer be absolute. That shift may also points to cracks between what educators teach students in journalism school and what is happening in the industry.

For years, journalism educators have preached about the “cardinal sin” of plagiarism. We review the cases of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and, basically, try to scare students straight.

So, what do we tell journalism students when a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist decides to cut and paste paragraphs from a competitor into her story because of deadline pressures? Are there now cases when such behavior is accepted while still remaining unacceptable?

In her apology after the plagiarism was discovered, Horwitz said: “Under the pressure of tight deadlines, I did something I have never done in my entire career. I used another newspaper’s work as if it were my own. It was wrong. It was inexcusable. And it is one of the cardinal sins in journalism.”

In his column following the incident, Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton notes that Horwitz was also caring for a sick mother while juggling a couple of story assignments. Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, said in an interview with Michael Calderone that "there are no mitigating circumstances for plagiarism."

Maybe, but are the days of being fired for ethical lapses gone? Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom understands the pressures of working in a “real-time” environment. And all journalists struggle to balance the personal and the professional; many good journalists leave the profession for just that reason.

I’ve always felt the best editors are the ones who are human and humane. But, it’s a tough balancing act. Meanwhile, in journalism schools across the nation, we talk about the high price journalists pay for ethical lapses; about slowing down and getting it right; and about being true to yourself and the profession. Has preaching moved ahead of practice?

“Arguably the very thing that makes plagiarism easier than ever also makes it harder than ever,” said Mark Stencel, a former Post employee who is now the managing editor for NPR’s Web operation.

“If we are seeing or hearing about more cases it's because Google and other tools make plagiarism easier to find.”

Katy Culver teaches ethics at the University of Wisconsin and says she has seen a growth in “accidental” plagiarism – where students cut and paste large sections of text into their notes and then forget to attribute where the information came from. Such behavior seems to be a growing practice within news organizations, but that’s not the most serious issue for Culver.

“The world was easy when plagiarism was the deadliest sin of journalism,” she said. “But honestly, what's worse ethically ... lifting two paragraphs from another person's story or cozying up to sources and not challenging what they feed you?”

In several class discussions I led on the Horwitz case, students commented on the stupidity of trying to plagiarize in today’s electronic world. They also asked “Why?”

For years, journalism educators have followed the industry’s lead on how business is done in journalism. Increasingly, journalism programs are providing content to news organizations and experimenting with innovative approaches to coverage. My Investigative Journalism & The Web class has a partnership with a local website and is covering the aftermath of the Phoebe Prince suicide in the town of South Hadley.

There are many such partnerships happening across the country and they are creating a template for collaboration. Is there also an opportunity here for educators and professionals to team up on developing new standards of professionalism?

Ours is not an easy profession and as the revolution continues, things will get more complicated.

“I don’t think that editors/teachers are somehow failing to effectively communicate to their staff/students that plagiarism is a heinous crime,” said Razvan Sibii, who teaches ethics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“The problem is that there are always people out there willing to commit heinous crimes. We don’t need more moralizing; we need better accountability mechanisms.”

Indeed. Is it as simple as getting back to a system where we hold each other accountable?

It’s not clear whether student plagiarism is increasing or not, despite some high-profile cases and the emergence of terms like “borrowing” and “mashing.”

Every time a case emerges, I view it as a teaching moment and often ask my students whether they think they would ever find themselves in a position in which they would steal content from somewhere else. The answer often includes references to how they’ve been told not to plagiarize since middle school but that deadline pressures might lead them to do it.

So, what to do? Here are four not-so-revolutionary ways reporters and editors can address this together:

  • Collaboration. Reporters and editors need to do away with the traditional mentality of “it’s my story, get away.” I often have students work in reporting teams in my classes – and collaboration is a model many universities and startups pursue because it is such a great teaching tool. Such thinking needs to make its way into more mainstream news operations.
  • Proactive editors. Many mainstream news organizations have lost editors but still operate under hierarchical processes. Even though they are stretched, editors need to be in regular contact with their reporters and should  know if their reporters are struggling.  Adopt a teacher’s role. The era of ‘I’ll check in with you when you hand it in’ is over. Editors need to be proactive in working with their staff.
  • Ask for help. Unfortunately, many newsrooms today operate under a climate of fear. Reporters and editors are worried about the future of the organization – and their own jobs. But, reporters need to ask for help – or more time -- if they’re in the weeds. To be comfortable doing that, editors need to bring an end to the cutthroat “what have you done for me lately?” mentality.
  • Story iterations. Both reporters and editors have to develop a culture of “many stories” to replace the “one story” approach. There is the initial Web version, an updated Web version, the print version and possibly others. Reporting is a continuous cycle.

Steve Fox is the Multimedia Journalism Coordinator at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He's been a journalist for 25 years, including 10 at The Washington Post's website. While Fox was at the Post during the same time as Horwitz, he did not work directly with her and does not know her personally.


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