Introduction to Plagiarism, Misrepresentation and Fabrication:
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) lists truth telling at the top of its ethics code, as does the Institute for Advertising Ethics. In every role a journalist plays from reporter to advertiser telling the truth to audiences is an important distinction that builds a trusted voice in the media. Plagiarism, fabrication and misrepresentation are incredibly serious violations of the contract between audiences and journalists.
In one of the most elaborate fabrication cases in the history of journalism, Stephen Glass invented sources, locations and businesses to write about in stories he reported for the New Republic, Harper’s, George, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones and The New York Times Magazine. This is a link to the Vanity Fair story, Shattered Glass, outlining the depths to which Glass went to cover up his fabrications.
During an NBC Nightly News broadcast, Brian Williams said he was shot down in a helicopter during the Iraq War. The piece was related to a story he had done years earlier at the start of the war when a helicopter had taken fire during a mission. Williams fabricated his involvement in the story. Later, NBC moved Williams from the anchor desk of the Nightly News to anchor MSNBC special programs. This Times article is about the mixed messages sent by NBC’s decision to keep Williams as an anchor on their sister station after he had fabricated facts in a story.
Possible Classroom Activities
Sometimes it is best to look at your school’s code of ethics, and to find the resources provided to university faculty about plagiarism, fabrication and misrepresentation by the administration. Purdue OWL has several handouts about plagiarism. These subjects lend themselves greatly to examining different case studies and asking students for their input. Students can compare and contrast plagiarism and fabrication in reporting and advertising.
Plagiarism, fabrication and misrepresentation are not limited to reporting. There are also advertising cases. Here, the Guardian writes about a Volkswagen ad in China that plagiarized a Belgian ad for driver safety.
Poynter offers 10 tips to prevent plagiarism and fabrication at student publications including defining each of these concepts and setting standards of practice in the newsroom.