Thursday, September 06, 2007

How My Alma Mater's Student Newspaper Got Away With Plagiarism

Last week, it came to my attention that my alma mater's student newspaper -- New York University's Washington Square News -- got away with plagiarism.

(To get full disclosure out of the way: as an undergrad, I once served as news editor at WSN. Some of the senior staff who work there, including the one in question, are former colleagues.)

On August 27, 2007, a fun feature story called "The Unofficial NYU Dictionary," by Barbara Leonard, was published for the paper's first issue of the year. The story, which details all of the campus jargon that a new NYU student might run into, ran in the printed edition and online (click here to see a scan of the original story).

However, the same story, slightly adjusted, ran under a different writer's name exactly one year prior. "Your guide to... NYU's dictionary," by Rachel P. Kreiter, ran August 28, 2006. In comparison, this year's version changed the lede, fleshed out some of the entries and bolstered the list a bit -- but nary a mention of the existence of Kreiter's original article was evident in paper or online (you can find it by searching the archives or clicking here).

Here's some evidence:

(More scans of comparable passages available here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Now, every student newspaper screws up in print; this is evident in the plethora of spelling errors that we see in every issue of every school's paper. In this case, Leonard's article ran in the paper and online without proper attribution. It's college; it happens. Students are learning what to do and what not to do. But when the Washington Square News realized its error, it made only one change -- to the byline of the new article sometime that afternoon, changing it to 'WSN STAFF.' (The paper version, already out on the streets, was beyond repair.)

Now here's an example of poor news judgment. When someone in your paper accidentally plagiarizes -- after all, it certainly doesn't seem malicious since the article is an evergreen one -- you simply run a correction. But what you don't do -- especially by commonly accepted online rules -- is change an important part of the story without saying so. It's a matter of transparency. But the Washington Square News neither acknowledged that it needed to properly attribute its own writer nor that it had made a change to the article in the first place. Plus, the online story doesn't match the paper version, and there's no indication of why that is.

There has been some tension behind the scenes about this very issue, and from what I understand, WSN plans on printing a correction in the next issue, which is due sometime soon. But I must ask: why not simply run a correction online, where the "printing press" is 24/7? Why wait until the printed issue? And furthermore, now that it has changed the byline of the story online, how will it explain its news judgment -- that is, making a change unannounced while still failing to give the original writer credit?

Where's the staff adviser in all this mess?

I know this isn't the front page of the Washington Post, and I'm not trying to "out" anyone or chew former colleagues out, but I'm using an example near and dear to my heart to show that these things often begin in college, and go unchecked. Thankfully, former WSN staff caught it before someone else did.

As journalists, our reputations are always on the line -- and poor housekeeping like this erodes what little we have left in our readers' eyes. After all, wasn't it Jayson Blair who so carefully internalized -- and then outright plagiarized -- his stories for the University of Maryland's The Diamondback before moving on to higher-profile missteps at The New York Times?

CORRECTION 9/7/07: Washington Square News ran a correction at the bottom of page 6 in Wednesday's issue, saying that the mistaken article "should have credited Rachel P. Kreiter as one of its authors."


R. Kreiter said...

How WSN got away with plagiarism is as follows: There's no one to check them. Your question of where the staff advisor is in this mess is a good start, but it's unlikely that the staff advisor would ever even find out about this, because he's new and didn't read last year's paper.

So really, dealing with an issue like plagiarism is up to the editor-in-chief, since there is no one overseeing WSN on a daily basis. And if the editor isn't interested in dealing with it at all, well, that's how we end up here.

I should also note that this problem apparently arose becase of the handling of the summer publication schedule. WSN needs a lot of work these days, but I don't know how they could gain some better editorial oversight without NYU stepping in and altering the paper/university relationship.

R. Kreiter said...

Ew, I should have edited this.

The Editorialiste said...


Thanks for commenting on this. I think your concern for the paper/university relationship is going too far, because to me, this is a nip-in-the-bud issue. Bottom line, plagiarism isn't acceptable, be it from somewhere else or in-house. It's true the paper needs oversight -- maybe use a former staffer as an ombudsman? -- but how the paper managed to run this isn't my point.

It comes down to this: You screw up, you screw up, and I can imagine how this reasonably got past a barebones summer staff of, say, two people. But when it happens, you acknowledge it -- not backtrack and pretend it didn't happen. Sure, the paper correction ran, but the online discrepancy still exists. It's poor form.

Newspapers run the same stories and photos annually -- like around Christmas, for example -- but they're never actually identical. New sources, new info, new photos, new bylines -- and if it's as evergreen as an NYU alphabet, why not just run the identical article with a note stating such? Or what's more -- since you're readily available -- why not just ask you to extend your own article?

How another writer got involved is anyone's guess.

All the best,
The Editorialiste.