Copy cat?

Similar news accounts raise the plagiarism question

Editor’s note: This story was revised on 02.13.08, reflecting a correction published in the print edition and here.

Additionally, following requests from both the Journalism Department and the student, we decided not to identify the Orion reporter by name and, on 02.22.08, revised references to her accordingly.

In the journalism world, plagiarism has been a hot topic for the past couple years, with a number of high-profile cases including the recent news of a University of Missouri, Columbia, journalism professor getting canned for stealing a quote from a student’s article.

At Chico State, plagiarism stood center stage in 2003 when three master’s students were caught with theses that weren’t their own, sending the entire campus into a tizzy on the subject.

During winter break, when Orion Managing Editor Ashley Gebb decided to place an editor’s note atop an online-exclusive story, she deliberately avoided using the word plagiarism. Instead, the note acknowledges similarities in an article posted on The Orion site Dec. 22 to one on the same subject printed in The Sacramento Bee four days prior. The Orion reporter did all her own reporting, the note says—the two writers just happened to have the same main source.

The story that the Orion reporter and Bee reporter Chelsea Phua both investigated was about a Chico State student (The Orion discovered she was actually a graduate) who was handed a newborn baby at a gas station in Lodi. The common source was a Lodi police officer.</</p>

When asked about whether the prospect of plagiarism had ever come up in discussing this story, the student reporter said, “No one’s even used that word.”

The word has been brought up by outsiders, however, and definitions in media law also raise a question as to whether The Orion story plagiarized The Bee’s. The structure of the first five or six sentences in both articles is nearly identical, with key words replaced (see a comparison). In fact, it was outsiders—Orion alumni—who noticed the similarities and alerted the student paper.

“We did a side-by-side comparison of the two stories, and indeed there were a lot of similarities,” Gebb said. She then conferred with her reporter, a senior finishing her first semester on The Orion, about how she reported the story. The idea came from reading The Sacramento Bee article, the student said, but she then did interviews and tracked down information on her own.

“We agreed that her story was totally legitimate,” Gebb added, “but it was raising a lot of red flags.”

Hence the editor’s note, which Gebb ran by Orion faculty adviser David Waddell, who agreed that the student writer did not plagiarize The Sacramento Bee story.

“We’re talking about somebody who’s done fantastic work for The Orion and who has a flawless record,” he said. “I don’t know what happened in this case, but I’m certainly willing to give her the benefit of the doubt because I think she deserves it.”

But when asked if he had compared the two articles, he admitted, “I wasn’t comfortable with the similarities, no.”

Glen Bleske, chairman of the Journalism Department, took it one step further.

“I don’t think it’s even close to plagiarism, by our definition,” he said, with his voice raised. “Anybody who says it’s plagiarism is off base.”

In talking about the two stories, however, he said: “It was probably closer than it should have been.”

So how can it be “not even close to plagiarism,” but at the same time “closer than it should have been"?

“If they both ended up speaking to the same public information officer with the police, the occurrence is possible without it being plagiaristic,” explained Aaron Quinn, an assistant professor at Chico State who teaches Mass Media Ethics. He admitted the possibility is less likely if the writer has read the other report. “On the contrary, I’d say that any journalist has to be worried at the very least about the appearance of plagiarism.”

The fact that the Orion reporter had read the Bee article before writing her own certainly makes it appear to be plagiarism, even if there was no intent to steal words.

A definition from the copyright law section of the textbook titled Media Law further illuminates the gray line: “A reporter who reads about a newsworthy disclosure in another publication … is not foreclosed from covering the same story. Reporters are free to go to sources mentioned in another’s story…. If competing reporters either make no effort to find new information or are unable to find any, and simply rewrite the original without credit to the source, they are plagiarists, no matter how different the wording of the second story.”

This idea of plagiarism, even if unintentional, is a common issue that journalists—and all students—must face regularly, as many ideas come to them from other sources. Quinn’s suggestion: “Giving some sort of attribution—'as reported in'—is the safest way to go.”