Student guest post: How can editors stop plagiarism and fabrication?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Andy Bradshaw is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in political science and reporting. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel and hopes to write for a legal publication in the future.

In 1998, Stephen Glass was at the center of possibly the most infamous instance of fabrication within the world of journalism. At just 25 years old, Glass had risen to prominence as one of the most high-profile reporters in Washington, D.C.

His stories for The New Republic, a magazine with a focus on political commentary, had that extra little quote or character that made his stories stand out above the rest of the pieces in the magazine. Glass always presented vivid, enigmatic figures with heartwarming back stories.

But behind the scenes, Glass was inventing entire companies, sources and stories purely from his own imagination. When he wrote an entirely fabricated piece centering on a 15-year-old hacker breaking the firewall of an entirely fictional company under the name of Jukt Micronics, Charles Lane, Glass’ editor at the time, expressed some suspicion.

When Lane forced Glass to take him to the conference room of a Hyatt hotel where Glass had stated the young hacker and the software company had met up to make a deal, Lane discovered that on the day Glass said the meeting took place, the conference room had been closed. After Lane found out that Glass had fabricated this story, he and other editors at the New Republic discovered that at least 27 out of the 41 stories Glass had written for the magazine contained at least some fabricated material.

This was truly a case of a lose-lose for all those involved. Glass’ name still evokes contempt from most of the journalism world, and The New Republic had a stain on its reputation that took years to diminish.

Since this scandal, fabrication has remained a prominent issue for reporters and editors. In 2003, Jayson Blair was forced to resign from The New York Times in the wake of the discovery of his plagiarism and fabrication in his stories. Just last year, a student journalist at the University of Alabama was discovered to have quoted up to 30 nonexistent students in her stories for The Crimson White. And in this past week, three Bangladeshi journalists were held in court for writing a fabricated story.

What seems clear is that fabrication is a problem with a wide scope — it can occur at a small college newspaper or even at a respected media behemoth like The New York Times. As editors, it’s our job to maintain accuracy. But how far can we actually go to ensure that reporters are engaging in ethical journalism?

The Poynter Institute has laid out some guidelines to prevent fabrication in the newsroom, and among them are some tips that editors may find useful. Sourcing notes can help force reporters to link their sources to biographies, names and titles. This makes it much easier for editors to be able to verify that their reporters are being honest in their stories. Had the editors at The New Republic used sourcing notes with Glass’ stories, they would not have been able to verify many of his sources, and thus suspicions likely would have arisen earlier.

But perhaps we as editors should take sourcing notes one step further. For digital stories, I would suggest placing hyperlinks to source information. This not only makes it easier for editors to verify source information, but also to open up the editing process to readers. As editors we bear the weight of the verification process, but we could use all the help we could get from our readers to ensure the stories we put out to the public are accurate and fair.

Furthermore, linking our sources lends context and authority to the story as a whole. Linking to information that was plagiarized could alert an editor to the fact that the information was taken from another source. However, when it comes to fabrication, the solution remains muddled. But sourcing notes can help editors easily get in contact with the sources listed in a story to verify that what the reporter wrote was truthful.

Overall, the process of preventing plagiarism becomes easier when editors employ techniques such as providing links to sources and incorporating those links in digital stories. This would make it easier for editors to detect if any information in the story was stolen from another source. Fabrication presents a new set of problems, but by providing these links with contact information, editors can get in contact with sources listed in stories to verify information.

Had these practices been in place when Glass and Blair were slipping their fictional stories under the eyes of editors, the damage they caused to their own reputation as well as the integrity of their institutions may have ended much sooner.