Ethics Alert: Should Student Reporter Who Fabricated Sources Be Outed by Editors?
A reporter at The Daily O’Collegian made up “at least one and as many as five sources” appearing in multiple stories published over the past two semesters.
In a letter to readers posted online yesterday, the editor-in-chief of the Oklahoma State University student newspaper confirms the staffer has been confronted and fired over the fabrications. It is unclear from the letter what led the reporter to engage in the source deception.
According to EIC Sally Asher, the lying came to light late last month when readers informed the O’Colly via tweets that the swimming leg of an annual triathlon covered by the paper had been canceled. Yet, it appeared in the lede of the related O’Colly story and in a quote from what was ultimately found to be a fictional student: “‘It’s safe to say that I am out of shape,’ psychology major Jackie Clay said. ‘I thought I was going to drown but at the same time, I was having so much fun.’”
Asher: “The O’Colly staff removed the story from online soon after the discovery and verified with Outdoor Adventure that the swimming portion was canceled because of inclement weather, and that the source mentioned in the article had no record of attending the university or being registered for the race. The O’Colly staff found another student source in the same article and three student sources in two more articles who had no record of attending the university.”
Along with outlining additional specific details of the reporter’s transgressions, the paper is now requiring staffers to submit a source sheet with contextual and contact info prior to the publication of all stories. Staff are also fixing the duplicitous articles online by including information from real sources in place of the bogus ones.
ETHICS ALERT: Asher and other top editors decided not to name the reporter in the online letter, a withholding they see as an act of humanity in the search engine age.
In Asher’s words, “The O’Colly editorial board anguished with the decision to print this reporter’s name, but we came to the conclusion that printing her name could ruin the rest of her life with a simple Google search. Instead, we concluded that ending her employment at the O’Colly and barring her from gaining experience, published articles and networking that is generally necessary to getting a job in the journalism world would be sufficient punishment. Her career after college is in her hands, but if a potential employer was to call us for a reference, we would fully disclose her dishonest actions.”
The paper’s name deduction is interesting, certainly a break from the ease with which many professional media out their offending staffers along with axing them. In most high-profile student press plagiarism and fabrication cases I’ve written about in recent years, editors have also fully identified their disgraced peers.
In this case, is the O’Colly’s non-disclosure decision the right call?
Among the questions in play:
- What level of transparency do student press readers expect and deserve?
- What loyalty or kindness do student media owe individuals who purposefully or ignorantly threaten their reputations?
- How do student press outlets explain withholding the names of unethical staffers while publishing the names of students involved in other misdeeds such as those arrested for minor crimes or athletes suspended from their teams?
- How important or newsworthy is a student journalist’s name in the context of this type of admission or when truly motivated readers can most likely figure it out on their own through gossip or a print or cached web search? (As a test, it took me 90 seconds via Twitter. If you want to know too, click here.)
- Should the younger age or the student part of a student journalist’s identity come into play when considering a full name-and-shame?
- Should the frequency, severity or deliberateness of the unethical behavior be factors?
- How about the level of experience — different standards, say, for a freshman versus a senior on staff for years?
- For non-independent student pubs, does this type of transgression call for a university-led academic dishonesty investigation and thus potentially even throw FERPA and a legally required name withholding into the mix? (Think schools won’t get involved? Example 1 Example 2)
- And what good might a public mea culpa do for the student journalist’s future prospects or peace of mind? (Sound silly? It’s worked many, many times for student editors who have resigned after screwing up. Example 1)
What else should be taken into consideration? And what is your outlet’s policy on identifying student plagiarists and fabricators?
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