The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State University, apologized and suspended a student writer after he fabricated quotes to attribute to Sue Paterno, the wife of the late football coach Joe Paterno, for a Sept. 7 article, according to an Oct. 1 report by the Daily Collegian‘s editor-in-chief Casey McDermott. According to McDermott’s report on the suspension and the student’s work:
“The quotes in the original article were fabricated, and the staff member said that this was done knowingly in violation of the Collegian’s Code of Ethics. The staff member also confirmed that parts of the quotes as well as other facts included in the article were drawn from StateCollege.com without attribution.”
The Daily Collegian also took the fake Paterno quotes out and put in “attribution where it was missing.”
McDermott noted that before finding out about the fake quotes, it killed a story by the same writer for turning in an article that had “similarities” to an “outside article,” which the student said was an “honest mistake.” McDermott added that it is “reviewing” the student’s work and adding an “editor’s note” to “each of the staff writer’s published articles online.”
The Paterno article, “Students look forward to Paterno Catholic Center opening,” by Nick Vassilakos, carries an Oct. 1 correction that reads:
“This article is under review following concerns about the validity of quotations and information appearing in other pieces of work by this staff writer.”
It also has a note at the end of the article that discloses that the article originally had “several statements falsely attributed to Sue Paterno and several pieces of information taken from StateCollege.com without attribution.”
The note links to McDermott’s report, apologizes and adds: “Paterno did not conduct an interview with the Collegian for this article, nor did she say the statements that appeared in the original article.”
Vassilakos’s last article for the Daily Collegian appears to have been published Sept. 10. That article is also on the Paterno Catholic Center and carries an “Editor’s note” that reads:
“This article is under review following concerns about the validity of quotations and information appearing in other pieces of work by this staff writer. A more detailed explanation of the situation can be found here.”
iMediaEthics wrote to McDermott seeking more information about this incident. See below what McDermott told iMediaEthics about this case:
iMediaEthics: Why didn’t your report name the student, when the editor’s notes on Nick Vassilakos’s articles indicate he is the writer in question?
McDermott: In writing the editor’s note, I wanted to be as clear as possible about the areas of Collegian content in question, so the note includes specific information about the article, the date when it was published and its location in the print edition. While this is a much larger issue than those typically addressed in Collegian corrections, I tried to approach this with some level of consistency in terms of how we address content issues in general – and the manner in which the story was referenced in my editor’s note follows that format. We do not name our reporters or staff members responsible for other errors in the paper, so I felt it was appropriate to approach this in the same way. That said, I did so with the understanding that this individual would still be connected to the content referenced, and I made sure the staff member understood this before the note was published, as well.
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iMediaEthics: How did the Daily Collegian learn there were problems with the Paterno quotes/article?
McDermott: A member of the community contacted the Collegian with concerns about quotations included in the story. This person asked not to be identified.
iMediaEthics: Vassilakos’ last article on the site is from Sept. 10. Was he suspended effective Sept. 21, the Sept. 18 ‘similarities’ issue, or later?
McDermott: The staff member was suspended on Sept. 21, upon confirmation that he fabricated quotes in the article that was published Sept. 7 about the Catholic Student Center dedication. At that point, we had already established several days earlier that his work would be reviewed for attribution issues as a result of the questions raised Sept. 18 and that he would be required to repeat reporter training classes. In that case, I trusted the staff member’s statements that the similarities between a sentence in his work and that of another source were not the result of intentional plagiarism. It was clear, though, that this staff member needed additional reinforcement in understanding how to attribute information from outside sources, and I felt it would be appropriate to address this by asking him to repeat a semester of training, which addressed plagiarism as part of its curriculum.
iMediaEthics: What exactly will the Daily Collegian‘s review of his work include and when does the newspaper expect it to conclude?
McDermott: It will include a review of the information included in all of his published work with the Collegian. I will look over available material from the staff member’s interviews (notes, email exchanges, audio recordings and so on), and I will contact the individuals quoted in the stories to verify whether they conducted an interview and, if so, whether the quotations included in the article are consistent with what they said. Additionally, I will look for signs of possible plagiarism in the articles, which will include screening the sources cited in the staff member’s fact checks and background research for similarities and incorrect or missing attribution. I don’t have a deadline for the completion of this review at this point.
iMediaEthics: You wrote that the Daily Collegian “increased training” for its reporters. What does the training include?
McDermott: This increased training is administered to incoming staff members and as a part of editor training. The session, led by News Adviser Jim Rodenbush, walks students through definitions of plagiarism, examples of plagiarism and ways to properly cite information in several different scenarios. It includes a brief, informal test in which staff members are asked to explain how they would cite information in various circumstances – for example, if a prominent community figure could not be reached for comment but was quoted in another media outlet saying something particularly newsworthy, or if a reporter is citing information from a press release, and so on. The session with editors also included a conversation on how to spot possible signs of plagiarism or fabrication.
iMediaEthics: Does the Daily Collegian have its own code of conduct/ethics/standards, or does it subscribe to any specific code?
McDermott: The Collegian has its own Code of Ethics. All incoming staff members are given a copy of this Code of Ethics, included as one publication with the Collegian Style Guide, upon beginning the training program at the paper. At present, the code includes two brief entries that specifically relate to issues such as plagiarism and fabrication:
Plagiarism – Do not use anyone else’s work, idea or phrase without proper attribution and permission.
Truthfulness – Be accurate and truthful with your sources and your news content at all times.
Hat Tip: Poynter