In case you missed it, Nicole Sobel, a columnist for The Collegian has admitted to plagiarizing an article from the New York Times. I’m not too sure of the exact timeline of how things shook out but if you look at the comments board attached to the article, you can see that some readers began calling the veracity of her article into question on Monday afternoon — once again demonstrating the power of the Web. Sobel is not the first writer to be fact-checked by the Web’s user community and will certainly not be the last.
Yet, despite the ubiquity of the Web — the knowledge that the reach of what you write is far and wide — writers continue to plagiarize. This situation reached the boiling point Tuesday when a blog known as the NYTPicker posted an entry accusing Sobel of plagiarizing a recently-published New York times article. The authors — I can’t name them because they apparently prefer to hide behind a cloak of anonymity — also sought comment from those involved, leading to this posting, which the anonymous authors say came from Sobel:
COMMENT FROM NICOLE SOBEL: In an email to The NYTPicker tonight, University of Massachusetts student Nicole Sobel had this comment on her plagiarism of the McWilliams column in the Daily Collegian:
In terms of my comment, the only thing I have to say is that I apologize, and that I have no excuse, I was going through alot and was under alot of pressure with schoolwork, and copied some of the article from the NY times, because I didn’t have the time to write alot of my own stuff that day. I have written wonderful things in the past, and am completely capable of it, this is the first time i’ve ever done anything like this and I apologize to the Daily Collegian for my mistake, and to the original columnist from the NY times, I’m honestly truly sorry, and regret it – I was in a rush, and didn’t know what to do to finish my article, so I took a bad route. It’s never happened before in my life, and I do not plan to do it ever again, it’s not in my character to even do something like this. I made a mistake, and It will never happen again, and like I said before i offer my deepest apologies.
As in most semesters, I’ve had many discussions in my classes this semester about ethical issues. There have been some interesting discussions. Conflict of interest always seems to garner heated debate. I know of three journalism students who hold or have held positions within political organizations on campus and we’ve talked in class about whether such behavior presents an inherent conflict of interest. Several of the students defended having one leg in journalism and one leg in activism, saying many of the new journalism outlets out there — such as The Huffington Post — are looking for journalists with a specific point of view. It was an interesting point, but one that worries me. We have way too many journalists in the mainstream and independent realm operating with blatant conflicts of interest. Credibility is really the only currency journalists barter with and it’s jeopardized if you’re acting as both observer and activist.
Which brings us to plagiarism. It’s nice that Sobel shares her reasons as to why she did what she did. But as a student of journalism, she, and As all journalism majors know, that plagiarism is a fireable offense out there in the real world. Your reasons don’t matter. You do it, you get fired. You don’t pass ‘go.’ You don’t collect $200. You don’t get a second chance, no matter how much ‘pressure’ you are under.
Journalism is a deadline-driven profession. On most days, you will be under pressure one way or the other — it’s the nature of the beast. In today’s competitive 24-hour news cycle, the pressures are even greater. ‘Pressure’ has lead to an increased use of anonymous sources, while rumor reporting is out of control. Cable television throws spaghetti against the wall when reporting, throwing reporting everything out there, and separating rumor from fact at some later date, if at all.
If anything, ‘pressures’ should be a signal to all journalists to slow down a bit. My old boss at washingtonpost.com was fond of saying: “I would rather be second and right than first and wrong.” It’s a mantra to live by.
As student journalists, you have options. If you are feeling rushed in handing in a piece for publication or class and feel the need to steal someone else’s work, please understand that you are stealing. Your profession is all about seeking out the truth, being transparent in your work and being honest with your audience. If you feel the need to steal someone else’s work, step back and re-think what you’re doing. In the end, missing a deadline or handing in a paper late is a momentary setback that can be remedied. Committing plagiarism is the cardinal sin of our profession and a sin few recover from.