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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Where Plagiarism Starts Early: A Look At Journalism Schools

Recent discussions about whether plagiarism is more present than ever in journalism is a healthy point of discussion among journalists. The most recent bout of self-recrimination is over whether a now-defunct Texas alternative paper made plagiarism its modus operandi. Some pundits claim to be shocked, shocked that this is going on.

Rather than point or wag a finger at these morally and ethically challenged types who must know they would be caught, it may be more useful to look at the competitive environment that seems to force people to cheat without consequences. Perhaps if American journalism had a set of enforced rules rather than vague guidelines which, when transgressed meant that the miscreant and his/her newspaper/broadcaster carried around a scarlet "P" for a year, then perhaps these events might not happen so frequently.

The question of plagiarism emerged again as I spent a couple of useful days last week being oriented among about a hundred new faculty at Ryerson University in Toronto. A few of use there will be teaching journalism. Most of the others were preparing to teach architecture, nursing, social work, engineering, etc.

We learned that Ryerson, a downtown Toronto university began in the 19th century as a so-called "normal school" - aka a teachers' college. In the 20th century, it became a polytechnical institute specializing in the applied sciences. About 10 years ago, it was granted university status. It now has more than 24,000 students and the highest rate of application to acceptance, we were told, of any university in Canada. Ryerson prides itself on the diversity of the faculty and the student body. I was impressed to see how Ryerson has a range of support services to make sure that students succeed in an environment that encourages diversity on matters of race, culture and gender. I even met the university's ombudsperson who seems both eminently likeable and tough-minded. A good combination.

The Journalism School is also very impressive, combining hands-on experience, with an aggressive internship program, while granting bachelors and masters degrees with a relatively high rate of placement in media organizations. I just hope there will be enough job for the thousands of grads who go through the process...But that's the subject for another column.

What did surprise me in the orientation was a session that lasted more than three hours about how these otherwise exemplary young people will do anything to graduate.

There seems to be a high level of cheating and plagiarism through the university. It's aided and abetted by near-by walk-in clinics who it was said, hand out medical excuse forms like candy around examination time.

We were told that in the sciences especially, students even hide cheat sheets inside their pocket calculators!

But Ryerson has a plan to foil the little imps. They have contracted with a company called turnitin.com which can track by word usage, phraseology and full paragraphs, whether a piece of writing has occurred somewhere else. The students are told that all essays will be submitted to this process and that seems to have had a salutary effect.

One professor expressed a concern that turnitin.com, as a US company, would be obliged under The Patriot Act to make any malfeasance available to the US government - a somewhat odd level of paranoia, but one that no one else in the room felt was out of place. (Has suspicion of US government snooping thanks to the Bush administration come to this?).

The Ryerson official assured us that all turnitin.com servers would be located in Canada and as such, subject to Canadian law. That made most of us even MORE nervous.

I asked colleagues who teach journalism in other universities in both Canada and the US if this was unique to Ryerson. Sadly, they said, no. It is a virtual pandemic in j-schools as it is elsewhere in the academy, they told me.

Which may go some way to explain why our journalism may be in such a perilous state.

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