If someone on your staff has committed the mortal sin of plagiarism, odds are you didn’t discover it first. Someone told you, and they’re pissed off. And that pisses you off.
The weird thing about plagiarism is that the media outlet is often blamed as much as the plagiarizer. Here’s what you should do…
Not as easy as it sounds, because no one feels more self-righteous than when they catch a plagiarizer.
When someone accuses your media outlet of stealing words, resist your first impulse: Don’t get defensive. Listen to the facts that are probably wrapped around insults. (“How can you idiots have missed this? I mean, it’s so obvious!”)
It’s important the EIC handle this call, meeting, and/or email. If the top person isn’t dealing the big problems, that’s a bad look.
All you need to know from this irate reader is: “How did you spot this alleged plagiarism, and can you send me a link to the source material?”
Then close with, “Thanks very much. I’ll look for that link, and I’ll address this right away. I’ll personally update you in the next few days.”
Check the link(s) you’re sent. Remember, plagiarism isn’t a legal term, so there’s no clear-cut definition.
Sure, it’s commonly known as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” But what’s the threshold? Copying a few sentences? A few paragraphs?
For news media, the line is bright: Stealing reporting. If your staffer lifted facts from somewhere else and claimed them as their own, they’re busted.
Once you’re satisfied your staffer indeed plagiarized…
Call an emergency meeting of your top trusted editors – the ones you know can keep a secret. Share what you’ve learned, then assign homework.
Plagiarism is like shoplifting. The first time it’s caught is seldom the first time it’s happened. So delve into the archives to determine how often your perp has gotten away with it.
That can take a few hours, so divide up the work. Give each editor a handful of stories, and ask them to copy-paste selected paragraphs into Google. Tip: Pick the most fact-laden sections and ignore the rest.
With a handful of editors, you can knock this out in an evening. Meanwhile, inform your adviser – even if you don’t really get along. You’ll need all the allies you can muster for the next few steps…
If you, your editors, and your adviser agree that plagiarism has happened, then also agree on the following: That person must be suspended if they did it once, fired if they did it twice.
If you opt for a suspension, make it hurt. You’re sending a message to your staff and (as you’ll see below) your readers:
• They must apologize to you in writing – and to the staff in person.
• They must be demoted – and assigned the most mundane tasks in the newsroom.
• The suspension should last at least the rest of the semester, with the understanding they’ll need to work their way back up the ladder – they don’t automatically get their old job back after the suspension is lifted.
If the staffer is willing to endure this embarrassment, encourage them throughout the suspension. Praise them for not taking the easy way out and just quitting. This is about redemption, not persecution. Your staff will notice your attitude and appreciate it.
Whether you suspend or fire, move fast. Set up a meeting with the staffer soon as they’re available. They’ll ask why, but be coy: “It’s something I’d rather not get into on the phone/via email.” Odds are, they’ll suspect.
At this meeting, have no more than 2-3 witnesses present – any more than that, and it seems like bullying. One should be your adviser, another should be the staffer’s direct supervisor. Dealer’s choice on a third supporter, if you wish it.
The meeting proceeds a lot like a typical firing. See that section for details.
If you’re only suspending the staffer, hand them a copy of the suspension’s terms (which your leadership team agreed upon in advance). At the bottom, include lines for two signatures – theirs and yours. Make two copies. Keep one, give one. If anyone gets “confused” about those terms later on, your copy will end an argument.
Once you fire or suspend the staffer, inform the person who tipped you off. Tell them you’re posting an explanation online the next day, but you felt you owed them this courtesy.
That public apology should be a letter from the editor. Write it yourself, don’t delegate it. Explain what happened, apologize for it, and feel free to riff on plagiarism in general.
The student newspaper I advise has busted two plagiarizers – in 2004 and 2017. Each EIC wrote their letter differently…
• An apology and an explanation
• Letter from the Staff
…but both did the job.
Finally, apologize to the media outlets your staffer plagiarized. An email will suffice. Include a link to your letter. You’ll either hear nothing or get a surprised Thank You.
ONE LAST THING…
Once this is public, someone – probably an uptight administrator – is going harangue you…
Do you have a plagiarism policy? You need a plagiarism policy. This wouldn’t have happened if you had a strong plagiarism policy. I demand you write up a plagiarism policy right away.
Of course, a “plagiarism policy” is as ridiculous as a “murder policy”…
Don’t do it. You know it’s wrong. Expect to pay a steep price if you kill someone.
…but if you want to appease the idiots, draw one up. How? Simple. Plagiarize one.
I jest, sort of.
Find your school’s plagiarism policy online. (Here’s Michigan State’s, just for the hell of it.) Then copy it, giving full credit. You can even introduce your own policy this way: “Our policy is based heavily on our school’s policy.”
By the way, at that student newspaper I’ve advised – for two decades now – we have just such a policy. But I have no idea where it is.