Plagiarism is arguably one of the worst offenses a journalist can commit. I have to admit, though, I think it’s also one of the most fascinating to examine.
The Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia’s student newspaper, recently uncovered a series of plagiarized articles from one of its writers. After dismissing the writer and notifying the school’s “Honor Committee,”—a student-run Supreme Court-like entity that upholds the student Constitution—the paper ran an editorial explaining it all.
The editorial board was attempting to do the right thing by being transparent to the audience. However, this transparency has brought scrutiny to members of the editorial board. In the editorial tell-all, the student accused of plagiarism was not directly identified by name, but the Honor Committee found enough evidence to say the student’s Honor Committee Constitutional right to confidentiality had been violated.Ultimately the case was dismissed by the the University Judiciary Committee.
This situation fascinated me on several levels. First, there is an issue of freedom of the press. The staff at The Cavalier Daily were reporting truth, which is often the first and best defense. However, as the Honor Committee pointed out, there is some gray area concerning the rights of the accused. The editorial board argued that by leaving out “the plagiarist’s name, gender, staff position and class year, as well as the titles, dates and content of the plagiarized articles,” the members had done their due diligence to protect the identity of the accused.
If this had been a libel case, the editorial board’s argument would fall flat. The writer may not have been directly named, but several unique attributes would make the person easy to identify. Was there more than one person dismissed from the paper’s staff during this time? If not, there’s your answer. If so, then whose stories were pulled from the website? Anyone with access to a back issue or two can find out with a quick search.
Finally, I think there is good debate to be had on the pros and cons of protecting the identity of a plagiarist. In this particular case, I can understand the desire to protect the identity to follow school standards. Additionally, it’s kind to be lenient with a student and not let a mistake in school result in being blacklisted from future employment. Students who cheat in other classes do not get their name in the paper because of it, and many other professions would keep personnel issues internal.
However, it’s universally recognized that cheating and plagiarism is wrong. Journalists get an especially heavy dose of this lecture, and this student chose to be unethical. Punishment by identification would be in line with the consequences in any other journalistic workplace. Plagiarism destroys a writer’s credibility and the audience deserves to know if they’ve been duped in the past and by whom. If the reader doesn’t know which writer and articles were involved, the entire paper’s credibility comes into question.
Although being publicly identified as a plagiarist may be a harsh punishment, I think news organizations have little other choice. Choosing journalism as a profession means taking on a higher responsibility to the public, and with that comes graver consequences.