Conversation develops in wake of Wente controversy

Sparked by controversy surrounding Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, discussions about plagiarism are popping up across campus – particularly, and not surprisingly, in journalism classes.

But for Western professor Romayne Smith Fullerton, Wente’s recently exposed gaffes are symptomatic of a problem that goes far beyond plagiarism. Smith Fullerton appeared on a recent installment of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, discussing truth in modern journalism, with other professionals in the field.

“Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute (for Media Studies) called the problem a ‘crisis in originality.’ I would add to that. I think it’s a crisis in thinking,” said Smith Fullerton, who teaches in Western’s graduate journalism program. “How is it that we educate students to actually be thinkers, and independent thinkers, in journalism school? That’s a difficult thing to do.

“The vast majority of the system is really all about downplaying originality, conforming to rules, conforming your ideas and not using the first person.”

The habits modern journalism programs must teach – the basics of reporting, if you will – don’t encourage independent thinking, she continued. It is difficult, as is, to balance the necessities of academic rigor and practical reporting skills in intensive journalism programs such as Western’s.

“We have to teach this institutionalized stuff, but we don’t have as much room to explore and make students think originally,” Smith Fullerton said, noting this issue doesn’t just affect journalism students.

“It’s a problem right across the board, and it’s a problem in undergraduate degrees. (Original) thinking is a leap and it’s not asked for earlier.”

The solution, at least for journalism students and those working in the field, is simple. The technology that helps locate other sources and articles, the very technology that helps others catch an act of plagiarism, can be put to a good use, Smith Fullerton said. Instead of citing and re-writing the original source, just refer to it and provide a hyperlink. It’s easy and transparent.

“Build on what’s there. Add your voice and make it clear what has gone before. The other solutions require a genuine commitment to come up with new models of learning and new models of journalism,” she said.

Paul Benedetti, coordinator of Western’s journalism program, added technological advancements have led to a new way of reporting.

“A new kind of writing is emerging because everything is available. ‘Patch writing’ is trolling around and getting two or three articles and stitching graphs together loosely,” he explained, adding certain challenges arise when teaching students plagiarism in a journalism classroom.

“We do presume students are familiar with plagiarism rules from their undergrad experience. But we don’t take that for granted,” he said. “Because plagiarism in journalism is a cardinal sin, we give them a heads up (during orientation) that it’s a serious problem in the profession and in the graduate program.”

It’s necessary early on to note the differences between plagiarism in journalism and academic writing, Benedetti continued. He stressed attribution, while omitting citations and footnotes, tends to be a stumbling block for some.

“We don’t cite and footnote and that puts students in a quandary. There’s real confusion and worry on the students’ part in first term. We work by example and by trial and error,” he said.

That said, Benedetti is thankful cases of plagiarism have been rare in the program – only two in more than a decade.

“One was classic plagiarism. The student lifted chunks of material, paragraph-sized chunks, sentences from another source, without rewriting it. The student had a certain way of writing and the voice here was different,” Benedetti said, adding the student had also forgotten to change the font when copying and pasting.

The other instance, in which a student fabricated interviews and details for a story, wasn’t plagiarism per se. In both cases, the students left the program.

Plagiarism – defined by the university as an act or instance of copying, stealing or appropriating another’s words, work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own – is just one of nine scholastic offences set out by the university. Others include cheating on an exam and resubmitting work for which credit was assigned in another class.

A 2010-11 report submitted to Senate noted roughly 200 instances of academic offences on campus, 150 of which were cases of plagiarism, said John Doerksen, Western’s vice-provost (academic programs and students). His office is still preparing the report for the previous academic year.

Consequences for all scholastic offences vary and range from a warning, a failing grade on the assignment, a failing grade in the course or an expulsion.