Journalism schools fret over student attempts to cheat on ethics exam

Journalists are expected to pursue the truth in all its forms, but they must balance that obligation against their profession’s demand that they acquire their information ethically.

Journalism schools like Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism now require students to takes classes on journalism ethics.

Samuel Freedman, who teaches the class “Critical Issues in Journalism” at Columbia, posted the final exam on the school’s Web site and gave students 48 hours to sign on and take the two-question test online. Students had 90 minutes from when they signed on to complete their two essays.

It now appears, ironically, that some students cheated on their ethics exam.

Columbia administrators received a tip from a student that someone read the questions early in the 48-hour window and shared them with classmates who had not yet taken the test.

In the three years since national media attention centered on Jayson Blair, a former New York Times writer who in 2003 resigned after being caught plagiarizing and fabricating elements in his stories, journalism schools have emphasized honesty and integrity more than ever.

In the Washington Post’s story on the events at Columbia, Robin Shulman referred to the “era of Jayson Blair-style fabrications” which has put the world of journalism in a “precarious state.”

Shulman’s story said that students at Columbia fear that their school will have a “badge of dishonor” and that their degrees will “be devalued.”

Some students at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where Blair attended, have worried that their connection to Blair through school may affect them.

However, Rafael Lorente, an adjunct professor at the Merrill College who teaches news reporting and writing, said that he doesn’t think these individual cases hurt the schools.

“As long as you have individual cases and not something that’s happening all the time, that’s not likely to hurt a school for very long,” Lorente said. “It might hurt this year’s class applications but it needs to be systematic to affect a university.”

He said he thinks these instances hurt individual reporters in the eyes of the public as in the eyes of the media.

“People already don’t believe that we don’t tell the truth, people always believe that we’re making stuff up,” he said. These situations “give fodder to those critics who say that people cannot be trusted.”

Lorente said that he has had instances where things didn’t look quite right and had to talk to students, but has not had situations get so far as to go before an honor committee because there wasn’t quite enough evidence.

Diana Huffman is the Baltimore Sun distinguished lecturer at the Merrill College of Journalism where she teaches media ethics to undergraduates and media law to graduate students.

She said that she had an instance where it appeared that students had discussed a question on a take-home exam.

“I told the class I had noticed this and asked anyone who might have done that to contact me,” Huffman said. “The two students did and they received an F on the assignment.”

She said she has served on at least a dozen honor council hearings and that in many cases, the professor was at least partially at fault because of the way the courses were set up.

“People have to have some accountability, especially in graduate school,” said Annie Cooke, 22, a graduate student who is taking courses with Lorente and Huffman this semester.

Cooke expressed surprise that students would cheat on an exam in ethics, a field in which she thinks they should be expected to formulate individual responses. She said that honor codes do not control people’s actions.

“People are either cheaters or they’re not,” Cooke said. “Signing a pledge does nothing to solidify your morals.”

“Honor codes do not work because anyone can say they’re going to do something and ultimately not do it,” said Brandon Fischer, 20, a junior at Maryland, who took Huffman’s ethics class.

Fischer said that he thinks journalism is a field where it’s hard to enforce rules about plagiarism and fabrication because there are so many out-of-class projects.

He felt that Freedman, the Columbia professor, should be held somewhat accountable.

“That professor should have switched the format or questions on the test if it was to be taken at different times,” Fischer said.

Another Maryland junior, Olivia Logan, 20, absolutely disagreed.

“No blame on the teacher,” she said. “There should be less trust given to the students.”

Logan offered a rather extreme method to eliminating cheating.

“The only way you could solve cheating would be to treat students like prisoners where you take them in one at a time and administer a test after you have inspected their entire body. Make sure you keep those who have taken it and those who haven’t in separate rooms with guards watching their every move.”

After pausing for a moment to think about her solution, she laughed and said “that’s not a feasible option, though.”

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