The journalism department at SF State has an ethics problem.
In the 2018-19 academic year alone, Xpress editors discovered nine cases of plagiarism and five cases of fabrication from student-reporters.
It took three offenses for one student to be removed from Xpress and the department gave every one of the 10 offenders caught by editors this year the opportunity to remain in the department. All but one opted to stay, including the three-time offender who plagiarized from the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Wikipedia.
Department Chair Cristina Azocar acknowledged at a recent meeting with Xpress staff that if students don’t know what constitutes plagiarism and fabrication, the department is failing us. We think it’s pretty clear that the department gets a big fat F on this assignment.
The Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics is very clear on ethical violations:
“Few actions harm journalism as a whole more than plagiarism and fabrication.”
The University’s Office of Student Conduct (OSC) is equally clear on academic dishonesty.
“The value of an academic degree is based upon the reputation of the University. Tolerating academic misconduct ultimately harms that reputation.”
But the journalism department has tolerated academic misconduct. It will be graduating at least four students this week who are confirmed plagiarists or fabricators, effectively devaluing the degrees of honest, hardworking journalism students.
Journalism professor Roland De Wolk said he finds this extremely concerning for the department and its current and future graduates.
“To be associated with those fatal breaches of the one thing journalists must have — credibility — is to be tarnished with a very odious stigma,” De Wolk said. “As someone who has taught in the department for a quarter-century, I don’t want to be associated with it, or them.”
Former Editor-in-Chief Niko LaBarbera, who headed Xpress in fall 2018, noted that in the professional field, these kinds of ethics violation end a journalist’s career.
“It just feels like while we are in school, this is an area to learn, [but] you can’t provide a learning environment that teaches con-artists, so there has to be some level of enforcement in place,” LaBarbera said.
In spring 2016 multiple students enrolled in the department’s Cultural Diversity class were caught either fabricating or using personal acquaintances as sources.
“I remember a few students talking about it in the hallway and worrying because they had used a personal friend of theirs as a source, which was against the rules of the assignment,” said Rebecca Dominguez, a student in the class.
Dominguez said among the courses of action discussed in the wake of the mass-violation was the creation of a dedicated ethics class. But no such class was placed on the bulletin. Instead, the department developed an ethics pledge, which students now sign in every journalism class.
The possible consequences for ethics violations like plagiarism and fabrication, according to the pledge, include a failed assignment, a failure in the class, suspension or even expulsion. But at the meeting with Xpress staff several weeks ago, Azocar said the department did not actually have the authority to do more than fail the plagiarized or fabricated assignment.
It is only now, in the wake of so many ethics violations, that an ethics class will be added to the journalism bulletin for fall semester.
De Wolk said letting students off with a verbal warning after they fabricate or plagiarize — something he considers the equivalent of a felony in journalism — is a disservice not only to them but to other students.
“A pledge means nothing if it’s just a way for the officials to check off that box and go to lunch,” De Wolk said. “What matters is teaching it.”
After four cases of fabrication and one of plagiarism this fall, LaBarbera was informed by the publication’s adviser, Jesse Garnier, that professors filed reports when a student was caught plagiarizing or fabricating, but it was unclear if those reports ever left the department.
After discovering a student had copied-and-pasted major portions of a New York Times story, LaBarbera reported the infraction to Garnier and Azocar but was shocked to find the student was allowed to enroll in Xpress this spring.
“It was an opinion piece, so the reporter was stealing someone’s opinion, which is even more — in my opinion — egregious,” LaBarbera said. “When I brought this to the adviser’s attention, he told me that there is nothing that he could do because the story hadn’t been published. I felt like I was in a position to have to publish a plagiarized story in order for the department to take any action against students who are plagiarizing.”
He was unwilling to compromise Xpress’ credibility, so there was no documentation of the violation.
“I feel like there were a couple administrators last semester who didn’t take these infractions very seriously at all,” he said. “And it’s really ironic to me that one of those advisers or administrators is actually teaching the ethics class next semester.”
This spring Garnier told Xpress editors the department’s policy required a student to be caught violating ethics three times before they could be reported to OSC. Until such point, Garnier said, an F on the assignment was the only penalty available.
One of the students LaBarbera caught went on to plagiarize a second time in the spring, prompting Garnier to go back and document his first offense along with his second. After the student plagiarized a third time, Xpress editors emailed Dean of Liberal and Creative Arts Andrew Harris, and it was then the department seemed to finally take notice.
“I think there were students this year that were more invested in the process of producing an ethically sound newspaper and magazine than there have been in a long time and that the advisers were just focusing on keeping their job security,” LaBarbera said. “I know for a fact that a handful of the advisers were up for tenure and I personally think that was the entire focus, rather than helping mold young minds.”
According to Azocar, it’s the dean who stood in the way of stiffer penalties all this time. But we as an editorial board are puzzled by this assertion.
Xpress repeatedly emailed and stopped by Azocar’s office for comment on this story and clarification as to which dean she was referring to over several weeks, but Azocar responded to these inquiries shortly before press time saying she hadn’t received them. She did not offer comment.
Associate Dean of the College of Liberal and Creative Arts Susan Shimanoff said she’s aware the journalism department has begun to work on addressing plagiarism and fabrication recently and she believes that’s a vital step.
“We consider academic integrity to be important in all of our departments, but I guess it feels especially important to me in journalism,” Shimanoff said. “We’re hoping we’re producing professional persons who are going to become professional journalists, and we would want high
ethics in journalism.”
But Shimanoff said the College has not created any roadblocks to the department’s effort to implement stiffer policies.
“The College has not stood in the way of a department developing an additional practice [to penalize ethics violations],” Shimanoff said. “We haven’t received a proposal from the department.”
According to Shimanoff, the professor or department chair has the option to report any ethics violation either to the College or OSC, but they also have the option to do nothing.
We as student-editors have no information on ethics violations in the journalism department outside of Xpress, but when Shimanoff was asked if she received reports from the department for the nine ethics violations discovered by Xpress editors this spring alone, her response was telling.
“You have named more numbers [of cases] than I have received,” she said.
She did, however, note that she would not have knowledge of cases reported directly to OSC.
Dean of Students Danny Glassmann said OSC can’t force departments or professors to follow recommended practices, but his office encourages them to report all cases of academic dishonesty because it’s helpful in maintaining academic integrity.
“Each college determines how they will handle academic integrity issues,” Glassmann said in an email to Xpress. “As such, enforcement might look different between the colleges.”
The journalism department claims to be turning over a new leaf with regard to ethics. Monday’s announcement offered the nebulous solution of a Standards Committee with “a clear process for reviewing complaints and issuing penalties.” It remains unstated what specifically that process
As the sun sets on this editorial board’s tenure at Xpress, we hope the work we’ve done to highlight the journalism department’s ethical shortcomings for students of the future’s benefit will be worth the frustration, disappointment and pushback we received from our own department.
Because as De Wolk notes, the future of journalism depends on it.
“Journalism schools, for better or worse, are now the primary foundry where tomorrow’s reporters, editors and news producers are first formed,” De Wolk said. “It is absolutely, without qualification, crucial that the bedrock standards for professional journalism be inculcated there when the metal is molten.”
This editorial has been updated to reflect that the journalism department added an ethics class this fall. Xpress regrets this error.