Response Swift To Plagiarized Story

David Spett

By David Spett

Last week, The Daily had its first run-in with plagiarism in recent memory when a first-time, freshman reporter submitted a story that was about half plagiarized.

The story, “Traveling mechanic rides to rescue of cyclists in need,” was published Nov. 6. It contained quotes and sentences lifted from a Daily article on the exact same topic that was printed on March 3, 2004. I counted the lines in the article that came from the 2004 version and found that 53 percent of the content was copied.

On Nov. 7, Editor in Chief Ryan Wenzel published a front-page editor’s note explaining the incident and retracting the plagiarized story.

Wenzel and other editors responded swiftly and decisively, and they deserve to be commended. It is embarrassing when a newspaper publishes a plagiarized story, but editors responded appropriately.

They banned the reporter, a student in the five-year joint program between Medill and the School of Music, from writing for the paper again. (She continues to work in the Ad Office, which has no say over editorial content.)

In his editor’s note, Wenzel said editors would check stories for plagiarism by searching archives and by entering passages into search engines. These are good ideas.

Wenzel also announced that he will require staffers to sign a new honor code. While I wish Wenzel had chosen another name – I’ve known too many “honor codes” that were excessively authoritarian – his idea is a good one.

Ironically, the new honor code is copied verbatim from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Luckily, The Daily didn’t plagiarize, said Fred Brown, vice chairman of SPJ’s ethics committee. The organization allows newspapers to adopt ethics codes similar or identical to its own.

The Daily should consider other changes as well. First, the editor assigned to work with the reporter was unavailable when the plagiarized story was scheduled for editing, so another editor was assigned. (New reporters write their first three stories for the development desk, where editors more closely advise new staffers.)

The reporter had struggled with the article and received significant help from a development editor. The reporter told me she “freaked” upon learning someone else would edit her story.

The Daily should require development editors, whenever possible, to edit the articles of the reporters they assist. To be fair, The Daily already tries to do this, but it didn’t happen this time. The story was not time sensitive, so it could have waited another day or two.

Seven pairs of eyes edited the article before it went to print, but no one noticed the plagiarism. To me, seven editors – the section editor, Wenzel, Managing Editor Teddy Kider and all four members of the copy desk on duty – seems excessive. I wonder if fewer editors, each taking more time, might have been more thorough. Kider said having so many editors does not make any of them less careful.

“We tell everyone, as soon as the first editor gets done with it, it should be ready to run,” he said. “There is no feeling that the next guy is going to catch (a mistake).”

Most importantly, editors should never be afraid to ask for reporters’ notes. Even trusted reporters need checkups.

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Because this is a college newspaper, where some mistakes should be forgiven, I omitted the names of everyone I could. Wenzel and Kider, as the paper’s top editors, do not get that protection. Am I a softie? Let me know via e-mail.