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An honest mistake or just plain wrong?

Seeing a tweet about another intern sparked my attention this summer as I sifted through the news on Twitter. The combination of the words ‘intern’ and ‘plagiarism’ was even more interesting to me.

In case you’re wondering exactly what I’m talking about, in June, Wall Street Journal intern Liane Membis was released from the newspaper after fabricating a story.  The Huffington Post wrote about her dismissal.

Liane Membis, former Wall Street Journal intern
photo credit: http://kexino.com

The Wall Street Journal, in a statement released by the editor, said quotes in a piece about the reopening of a Manhattan bridge couldn’t be “independently verified.” Membis was an intern for the Journal for less than three weeks and wrote for the Yale Daily News before graduating.

In a story for the Yale Daily News, Membis said: “For me, I know personally it was an honest reporting mistake that I made. This is definitely something I’ve never done before.”

An “honest mistake,” really? Reading this quote evoked a scoff, eye roll and further thought about plagiarism in journalism. To me, an honest mistake might mean  a spelling error that slipped through the cracks, but making up sources takes a little more creativity and forethought.

Why did this happen? What made this girl make up sources, and more importantly, why did she seem to think this was OK?

These questions buzzed through my head as I tried to process this situation especially because situations like Membis’ are not isolated.

Recently, CNN host and author, Fareed Zakaria, was in a similar journalism ethics controversy. A blogger found that a column Zakaria wrote on gun control had pieces that were taken out of an article published in April by the New Yorker. Some, including Simon Houpt, the media writer for the Toronto Globe and Mail, wonder if the recent bout of plagiarism might be a sign that journalists are being “stretched too thin.

But what’s really at the core of these cases?

I think it’s a simple case of ethics — what’s right, wrong, an “honest mistake” or just plain wrong.

A 2005 study by the Center for Academic of Integrity found that 70 percent of college students admitted to cheating.

Seventy percent?!!!? Yes.

The study went on to show that 77 percent of those surveyed did not think cutting and pasting from the Internet was a major problem.

Apparently what’s right and wrong seems to be a bit fuzzy to a number of students and this needs to change.

In journalism school, professors deduct points or lower your letter grade if you make an error. But in the real world, what’s at stake is your reputation because what might seem like the easy way at the time could have major implications later.

So whether it’s a lower grade or being fired later on in life, plagiarism will catch up to those who don’t take it seriously. One mistake could be what people remember you for if you’re not careful.

I’m sorry Ms. Membis, but from one intern to another, your made-up sources will be engrained in my mind for quite some time.

_ Asha Anchan

  1. September 4, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    I guess she wasn’t up to admitting it was a “dishonest mistake.”

  2. Tess
    January 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I have a question. My daughters are both in college and they are very careful about citing sources,primary and secondary,in their papers and reports. They also use quotation marks when appropriate. Sometimes I proof read (for grammar and punctuation only) but I know there is going to be an error one day – even with these precautions. Would a disclaimer with “to the best of my ability” kind of message handed in with the report do any good?

    Also, when I went to school we had books and a few studies as our sources. Now we have the Internet – way more information than I had access to. I think it would be impossible NOT to say something exactly like someone else somewhere on the Web. I wonder if that’s taken into consideration with our without the TURNITIN tool.

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