Use your own facts, not mine

So this morning’s story on Stephen Glass’ plight to persuade the California Bar to grant him admission – written by Jack Shafer of Reuters – brings to light Glass’ latest argument regarding his moral character: He was tormented by his family into being a dishonest reporter. Is it a plausible defense? Or another fabrication/manipulation by Glass?

Glass, if you remember, fabricated story after story for the New Republic before he was fired and his stories scrutinized, post-publication … and was portrayed by Hayden Christensen in the movie, “Shattered Glass.”

Now, Shafer writes:

The legal argument under debate in California isn’t whether Glass made stuff up willy-nilly in his journalism. That verdict was delivered long ago; you can read the eye-popping details in Buzz Bissinger’s September 1998 Vanity Fair feature. The question before the California Supreme Court is the 39-year-old Glass’s current moral state, and whether he has sufficiently rehabilitated himself to practice law today.

Stephen Glass clearly has the gift to manipulate. It’s probably what would make him a good lawyer. But his lastest saga raises some questions in regards to plagiarism, and whatever motivation one may have to fabricate or plagiarize:

Is there any redemption for committing plagiarism?

Or for those who enable plagiarism?

Why do some journalists fabricate or plagiarize?

I got a little into it on Twitter this morning, and will expound here. Because I hate to make a point 140 characters at a time.

In the spring of 2009, a Google Alert landed in my email box with a link to a blogger’s story on a local hockey prospect … a story that included the quotes that ran in a story I wrote earlier that spring.

Houston, we have a problem.

My editor confronted the person who ran the blog. It was an unpleasant exchange, and I’m indebted to the editor for defending the work and the brand.

Later, I confronted the blogger. His answer? “The original links to your story didn’t work.” So, um, you lifted the quotes instead and used them in a completely different context? (The offending post was removed, by the way.)

Note to writers: Check your links. Better yet, interview someone yourself.

Another instance: my quotes and work were lifted again by a different outlet, work I’d written under a different editor.

Said editor would not handle the situation. “Imitation is a great form of flattery,” the editor told me, after I brought the instance to his attention.

So, wait. Plagiarism is flattery? Does that mean hell is just a sauna?

Even worse? Prior to that exchange, said editor told his staff to come to him whenever there was a problem with other media types lifting our stories. After that exchange, I asked a few more questions: Was this person really fighting for me? For my coworkers? For our department?

(Said editor is still employed and I am not. Go figure!)

It should be easy enough to know this much – don’t plagiarize. Or fabricate. Or let a good story get in the way of the facts. There’s no excuse for a lazy attempt at journalism. For fabrication. For cutting and pasting.

Or for blaming your parents as a reason for doing all these things.


3 thoughts on “Use your own facts, not mine

  1. Rachel –

    As with your other posts, I think you are definitely on point with this. I use “Shattered Glass” in my Mass Media and Communications class and the students typically eat it up. Thankfully the movie doesn’t leave a lot to interpretation – but I’ve noticed that every year, more and more students don’t feel it to be a big deal. They make fun of me when I rail on and on about just how absolutely ridiculous what he did was. Some flat out don’t believe his actions were wrong – that it just wasn’t that bad of a thing to do. Many of our students simply don’t have a concept of what ethics are – or they do and just don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a shortcut. It’s not wrong until you get caught. I fear that I will one day have a former student who turns out to be a “Stephen Glass,” so I spend time in almost every lesson going over ethical decisions. (As an aside, if you ever get the chance, take a look at the extras on the DVD – they have the 60 minutes interview with Steve Kroft – or check it out here: – low quality, though).

    It sickens me that Glass wrote a book – albeit fiction – and that people bought it. It sickens me that he is still disillusioned enough to think that he should be a lawyer. Second chances or not, I don’t believe he should be permitted to work in any field that requires one to be ethical; he has proven on many occasions that he has none.

    Any time that I see an instance of plagiarism – such as you being victimized – and I chose that word purposefully, I can’t help but think of The Smiths song “Cemetery Gates.” If you know it, then you probably understand where I’m going. If not, here’s the link and the part I’m referring to starts right at about the 60 second mark:

    At any rate – again, a great post – one that I will be incorporating in to my teaching of ethics for sure…


    1. Awesome post, Jeremy. That’s the sad and overriding belief – it’s not cheating until you get caught. Out of curiosity, have you ever caught a student cheating? How did you handle it, as a journalism teacher?

  2. Unfortunately, yes. This year alone, I have caught three honors level students who plagiarized essays, knowing full well they would be run through Blackboard’s Safe Assignment system. Two of the three simply said that it didn’t matter to them. I made phone calls home and again two of the three didn’t even seem to care. I had one journalism student plagiarize a movie review for the second Legally Blonde movie – I knew there was no way it was her writing, googled it and it was the first review that came up – she wasn’t even motivated to cheat well…

    As for how I handle it, that’s very easy – it’s a 0 on the assignment – no matter what. And trust me, they know this from day one. I don’t think there should be any other way to handle this, although our administration pushes for us to allow the kid to re-write the essay. To me, this doesn’t even come close to making sense – providing we’ve warned them ahead of time that this is completely unacceptable.

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