At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right.
And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.
Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester. It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.
It’s also the same when the students are confronted. They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. (Or, in at least one case, a note from a parent that told me “The family lawyer will be in touch.) It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)
Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course:
- You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
- You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job? Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.
- Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees. Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper. I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back:
We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.
Hope you are doing well.
I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that. This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.
- You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.
Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.
The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.
Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.
I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.
Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.
Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.