Plagiarized News Reports

Another journalist has been fired for a cardinal sin.

Via memeorandum, I came across a cryptic “A note to our readers” from NBC News.

A review by NBC News has found 11 articles written by a reporter over the last year that did not meet our standards for original material. The articles contained passages from other news organizations that were used without attribution.

In all cases, the passages were not central to the stories, but instead contained supplemental or background material that did not represent original reporting.

An editor’s note has been placed on each of the articles, and the passages that were plagiarized have been removed.

Maintaining the trust of our readers and viewers is essential to NBC News, and our work must always meet the highest standards of our profession.

Clicking on the first two stories, I saw that the reporter in question was Teaganne Finn, of whom I had not previously heard. Her LinkedIn indicates that she was a Political Reporter for NBC News from July 2021 – May 2022, so I surmise she has been fired. Previously, she was a Breaking News Reporter and Agriculture Reporter for Bloomberg between August 2017 and July 2021 and held a variety of internships and school newspaper billets. She has a BA in Rhetoric and Composition Studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges (2016) and a Masters in Public Affairs and Journalism from American (2017). So, she was young and inexperienced but certainly should have known better.

Yet I wonder if she truly did.

When I last taught undergraduates, two decades ago now, written assignments were already on the wane in college. In those days, students turned in hard copies of their papers and professors graded them by hand. We occasionally caught students who had blatantly plagiarized their work but our only way of knowing, unless we recognized the offending passage, was if pieces of the paper were clearly in a different voice or substantially higher caliber than expected from the student.

Nowadays, most schools have students turn papers is electronically through a learning management system, most of which are paired with a plagiarism detection service like TurnItIn. My suspicion is this has simply turned the process into a game, where students run their papers through the software, find the offending passages, and then reword them.

Beyond that, while the ethos of academia and the early blogosphere have always been finely attuned to crediting sources—indeed, doing so is not only engrained in the ethical structure but is rewarded by making the work more credible if quality sources are cited—that’s clearly not the ethic of modern journalism. At least in the Internet era, there has been a cottage industry of cranking out large volumes of “content” that are, at best, “curation” of others’ work but often not all-that-well-disguised “re-reporting.” Going from that to simply incorporating others’ reporting without acknowledgment is a pretty easy step.

FILED UNDER: Education, Higher Ed, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DK says:

    In all cases, the passages were not central to the stories, but instead contained supplemental or background material that did not represent original reporting.

    So cryptic from NBC. This could mean any number of things. “Background material” is also supposed to be original? Hmmm.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @DK: If it’s uncovered by other reporters, it should be attributed to them.

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  3. Jen says:

    I have a few friends who are either full professors or adjuncts who teach classes, and I’m constantly astonished by their reports of complete or partial plagiarism. It’s bizarre that this continues to happen.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: I’ve only taught graduate students these past nine years and, despite our explaining it to them at the start of the year, I honestly think most of them just don’t understand the concept. It’s been engrained in me since high school but we’re a much less literature culture. I think it’s harder for people to understand the importance of sourcing in a world with Google and Wikipedia in it. Why, everything is just “common knowledge” now so why cite anything?

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  5. CSK says:

    @Jen: @James Joyner:
    I once had an undergraduate student plagiarize a paper from the course textbook, apparently supposing that I myself had not yet tapped that vein of critical inquiry.

    This has been going on forever. We used to sit around the office trying to think up non-plagiarizable topics to assign. Do term paper factories still exist?

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  6. Kathy says:

    In the 80s I took several classes in “computers,” in two different schools. Each one had an early term assignment of writing a paper on “the history of computers.”

    I wrote the first longhand, but the second on an Apple ][e. By the time the third came around, I just reprinted the second. I also told the teacher that’s what I did. Fortunately she got the point: that’s one thing computers are for.

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  7. Mu Yixiao says:

    I have a friend who’s “internet famous”. After retiring from the coast guard, he went to college (just because the GI bill was paying and he was bored). He got called into a prof’s office and handed a short story. “That’s my story. But that’s not my name on the paper.”

    Turns out one of the kids in the class handed in a story from one of his favorite online writers–not knowing the guy was in the same class.

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  8. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    Do term paper factories still exist?

    Yes they do. So do application mills. And they’re significantly funded by Chinese college students.

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  9. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    A short paper I wrote in college about the uses of communications satellites, included a citation more or less like this:

    Whatsisname Orbit, I. Asimov, “X Stands For Unknown”.

    It has a succinct explanation on the Clarke orbit comsats use, form the orbital mechanics to the practical advantages.

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  10. inhumans99 says:

    I graduated UC Santa Cruz back in 2001 (I believe, it was the year that 9-11 happened) as an English Major, or I think I had to pick Literature as they were both the same thing (received my B.A.), and sourcing was very much a thing. I had to write a ton of papers, especially during mid-terms and finals, and the instructors very much wanted us to cite at least 5-10 sources other than the primary text we were using for our paper. It was so tedious, but the proper thing to do.

    Fortunately, I lucked out and avoided instructors who require footnotes. That would have been a real grind to generate footnotes (which I never became good at generating due to a lack of experience having to provide footnotes in my term papers), not to mention that the way I would gather my sources and then put all my thoughts to paper, it would have destroyed the flow I had developed when crunch time hit and I had to spend most of my waking hours in front of my iMac cranking out my papers (I, like many other college students at that time had the “cool” computer produced by Apple, an iMac that I chose the color green, and I remember my Epson printer even had an offer to send away for a colored plastic plate/paper tray to match the color of ones iMac of which I took advantage of, but I digress).

    I never had the money nor knew the right people to turn to if I wanted to cheat, but unfortunately I get it that some students might turn to the dark side to try and prevent themselves from flunking certain classes, but I was aware of what plagiarizing was long before I went to college and always knew it was a big no no in the land of Academia, well, not just in Academia, but life in general, ripping off someone else’s work is never the cool thing to do.

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  11. CSK says:

    I once had an irate father inform me that he used consultants in business all the time, which was no different from his son buying a term paper.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    In junior high school, one teacher insisted papers be done by hand, so as not to have “your daddy’s secretary type them up for you.” it was that long ago. Others insisted in typed papers, so they wouldn’t waste time deciphering handwriting (they must have suffered horribly at test time).

    Looking back, it’s odd how my typo frequency has increased as technology advances. as I recall, I didn’t do that many corrections on typed papers. the first real computer I got, the Apple mentioned above, had no spell checker, but there were spell check utilities. Basically you typed the document, then ran it through a checker. I recall more typos then.

    Next iteration was WordPerfect on PC, with built in spell check, but you ran checks after typing, too (on edit mode, I think). Typos remained more or less constant.

    Then Word with on the fly spell check, as well as eventually the same capability on web browsers useful in websites like this one. I mistype so much more now, it’s a wonder I can make myself understood (as no doubt many of you have noticed).

    My big problem is the bilingual spell check in my work browser. Some misspelled English words are perfectly valid Spanish ones. As well as typoing into a valid word (like sue instead of use). Lastly not paying enough attention, so I miss the word underlined in red and let it go public.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: The citation that I was proudest of using was “unnamed copywriter, back cover blurb of this book”

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  14. @CSK:

    Do term paper factories still exist?

    Oh yes.

    And given the prevalence of online classes, there are people you can hire to take your classes for you.

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  15. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I seem to have gotten out just in time.

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  16. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Just ask Paige Laurie about that. Then had her name stripped from a U of Missouri building.

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  17. Just nutha says:

    @CSK: Me, too!

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