An Apology from Editor-in-Chief Rachel Wilson
In his 2007 article “We Stand Corrected: When Good Journalists Make Stupid Mistakes,” Chip Scanlan wrote “[w]ant to see a journalist wince? Publish a sentence that begins this way: ‘In yesterday’s edition, it was inaccurately reported…’”
Here I stand, corrected and wincing. Of course, I am not trying to put myself in the same category as such good, professional journalists, because I am not. What I am, however, is a 21-year-old college student, pursuing English, working in a learning lab on campus. Even if for different reasons, aren’t we all here for the same purpose, to learn and to get better? That’s why I am in school, and that’s why I took on this job with The VanCougar in the first place.
I have been in college for over three years now, and I am still learning a lot. I have been in this position for over five months now, so you can bet I am definitely still learning a few things. It has been brought to my attention that in two of my past articles, I have not been using proper citations, nor have I been giving proper credit to the original authors. I have not been doing journalism, or the great reporters in the world, justice. On the next page you can find a more detailed list of these instances.
These mistakes show that, no matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes. It is easy to read or hear something and then want to use that, or for the piece of information to find its way into your story. There is a lot of information to take in and absorb in every field, including journalism, and it is impossible to know everything. Humans make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are intentional, and some are true misunderstandings or a lack of knowledge. Regardless of the reasoning behind those mistakes, what truly matters is that you can admit to those mistakes and figure out how to avoid making those same mistakes a second time. When it comes to figuring out how not to make those same mistakes again, read on to find Managing Editor Steven Cooper’s story, where he details how we will be moving forward from here on out. Take my mistakes, and my admission of those mistakes, and let them help you in the future. Whether that be with your schoolwork and crossing that gray line, or with a job down the road, take my experience as an example of how to learn from mistakes.
The VanCougar, Editor in Chief
The following list details multiple cases of plagiarism that we identified in our stories this year. We sincerely apologize to the publishers and journalists who are the rightful owners of this content. To learn about the changes we are implementing to ensure this does not happen again, please see the letters for the editors elsewhere in this issue. We also intend to reference these corrections in our electronic publications of issues 1-3.
Issue 1: “Cosmic Frenzy: Oregon braces for eclipse-seekers” (Aug. 21, 2017)
We published this story without giving proper credit to the previous publisher, Portland Monthly Magazine. As a summer intern for the company, our Editor-in-Chief Rachel Wilson wrote this piece. As the Great American Eclipse coincided with the first day of school, we decided to republish it to share with you all, and failed to note that it had already been published in Portland Monthly Magazine’s August issue.
Issue 2: “Washington’s New Distracted-Driving Law: The state’s laws are becoming stricter when it comes to technology” (Sept. 7, 2017)
Several parts of this story use plagiarized language from a July 5 Clark County Today story by Michael McCormic, Jr. titled “Washington’s new Distracted Driving Law Goes into effect” and a July 21 piece by The Columbian’s Andy Matarrese titled “Distracted Driving Law takes effect Sunday.” After an extensive review of all plagiarism occurrences, we determined that these instances were unintentional. Still, this is no excuse. Some of the information could be considered common knowledge, but in multiple areas the wording and structure of the language was plagiarized from these two sources.
In our story’s second paragraph, we reference research and studies done by the Washington State Department of Transportation. This language too closely resembled language in Matarrese article, which cited the same studies. This information should have been more carefully paraphrased.
In our story’s third paragraph, we state that the governor signed a law that restricts activities “allowed behind the wheel, including taking pictures, retrieving information, texting, and watching videos, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.” This closely mirrors language in Matarrese’s article, which states, “The new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 16, was broadened to describe more toys and behaviors that aren’t allowed behind the wheel. It includes typing messages, accessing information, watching videos or using cameras, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.” Our language here should have also been more carefully paraphrased to avoid plagiarizing Matarrese’s work.
The story’s fifth paragraph states, “The first ticket for a distracted-driving offence, if electronic devices are involved, will cost at least $136. Per infraction, the cost will increase. A second ticket within five years of the first will run at $234.” This sentence was also plagiarized from Matarrese’s article, which reads, “The first ticket for a distracted-driving offense, if electronics were involved, will run at least $136. The cost increases per infraction, so a second ticket within five years of the first costs at least $234.”
Our story’s fifth paragraph also reads, “What hasn’t changed is that drivers who are eating, drinking, smoking, reading, or doing their makeup in a way that interferes with driving could see a secondary $99 ticket.” Matarrese’s article states, “What hasn’t changed is that drivers who are smoking, eating, reading or grooming in such a way that it interferes with driving may see a $99 secondary fine.” This information should have been credited to Matarrese’s article.
In the story’s sixth paragraph, we state “In addition to these fines, driver’s insurance companies will now be alerted of infractions related to cell phone use, which was not done under the previous law.” McCormic’s article reads, “In addition to the steep fines, infractions related to cell phone use will now be reported to drivers’ insurance companies.”
In the sixth paragraph the story also states, “With new technology emerging, applications such as Snapchat and Instagram have become more heavily used than texting and calling on cellphones. Until last month, no laws had been put in place to curb the use of such applications while behind the wheel.” McCormic’s article reads, “As technology continues to advance, new applications like Snapchat and Instagram have become more heavily used than text and call functions on cellular devices. Up until now, no laws have been implemented in Washington to curb the use of such apps while behind the wheel.” While this information is common knowledge, the content in our story should have been more carefully paraphrased to avoid language so close to McCormic’s article.
Our story’s final paragraph reads, “The Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act is focused on one thing: safety.” McCormic’s article states, “The Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act ultimately boils down to one thing: safety.” The story should not have included language so similar to McCormic’s article and could have provided the same information with completely different language.
Issue 3: “The Gorge is on Fire: Some of the most cherished trails along the Columbia River are in flames” (Sept. 26, 2017)
Multiple parts of this story were plagiarize from articles in The Oregonian, Willamette Week and Portland Monthly. We specify the exact instances below. Of the three stories for which we provide corrections, this story on the Gorge Fire contains the most serious instances of plagiarism. The VanCougar adheres to the the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which specifically obligates journalists to minimize harm and be accountable and transparent. Two sources were quoted in this story without correctly attributing the quotations to interviews conducted by other news organizations. These instances in particular violate both these principles.
The first paragraph of this story reads, “The Eagle Creek fire—allegedly sparked by teenagers playing with fireworks over Labor Day weekend—has so far consumed over 37,000 acres in and around some of the most cherished spots in the Columbia River Gorge.” A summary in Portland Monthly’s Sept. 5 article titled “The Gorge is Burning: What to Know and How to Help” reads, “The Eagle Creek fire—allegedly sparked by teenagers playing with fireworks over Labor Day weekend—has so far consumed at least 10,000 acres in and around some of the most cherished hiking, biking, mountaineering, and sightseeing destinations in the Northwest.” While the alleged cause of the fire was commonly known, The VanCougar’s language should have been paraphrased differently to avoid the plagiarism observed here.
A second sentence in the first paragraph reads, “On September 14, with rain on the way, officials said firefighters continue to employ burnout operations along the eastern section of I-84 as the fire continues to grow.” A Sept. 15 article by The Oregonian’s Jim Ryan titled “Columbia Gorge Fire now 17% contained; rain looms in forecast” reads, “With rain on the way, officials on Thursday said firefighters continue to employ burnout operations along the eastern portion of Interstate 84 as the Eagle Creek fire continues steady growth.” This information should have been more carefully paraphrased to avoid the same language by Ryan’s article.
In the third paragraph, we correctly attribute a quotation to Kevin Gorman, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge. What we failed to reveal was that this quotation came from remarks published by Willamette Week in an Sept. 13 article by Nigel Jaquiss titled “Before Wildfire, the Columbia River Gorge Was Groaning with New Visitors Unprepared for the Outdoors.” We should have clearly specified that this quotation came the article by Willamette Week.
The third paragraph of The VanCougar story again plagiarizes language from another source. “The Columbia River Gorge is full of beloved trails and historic structures, many of which have been either engulfed by flames, are in immediate danger, or are close to the boundary of the fire,” states our article. “There are dozens of hikes and waterfalls in the path of the Eagle Creek fire,” continues the article. A Sept. 5 article by The Oregonian’s Jamie Hale article titled “Columbia River Gorge trails and treasures endangered by the Eagle Creek fire” uses similar language. “The Columbia River Gorge is full of historic structures and beloved trails, many of which are either already engulfed by flames, are in immediate danger, or are dangerously close to the boundary of the fire,” Hale writes. Later the article describes threat to protected areas. “There are dozens of hikes and waterfalls in in the path of the Eagle Creek fire,” Hale says. While it is common knowledge that many trails locations in the Gorge were threatened by the fire, The VanCougar’s article should have avoided language that so closely mirrored writing in Hale’s article.
The fifth paragraph of the story reads, “The final days of summer will soon lead to autumn rain, and while that is good news for the 934 personnel battling the Eagle Creek fire, it’s another disappointment for those wanting to get back on the trails.” A different Oregonian article by Hale published Sept. 11 and titled “Eagle Creek fire will keep some Columbia Gorge trails closed until spring” reads, “The dwindling days of summer will soon lead to autumn rain, and while that’s welcome news for crews battling the Eagle Creek fire, it’s another disappointment for those itching to get back on the trails.” Once again, while the changing weather was common knowledge, our article’s language should have completely avoided copying language used by Hale.
The same article was plagiarized in our story’s sixth paragraph, which reads, “Trails unaffected by the fire will likely be accessible once the fire is 100% contained and the area is assessed for safety, but trails burned by the blaze might not be safe enough to hike until spring of 2018.” Hale’s story reads, “Unaffected trails will likely be accessible once the fire is contained and the area is assessed for safety, but thanks to further dangers that come with the rainy season, trails burned by the blaze might not be safe to hike until spring.” It would have been wisest to clearly reference an official source for the estimated opening date for the trails, rather than using language that matched Hale’s writing.
In the seventh paragraph we quote Dawn Stender, trail crew supervisor for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. We failed to credit the reporter who actually conducted the interview. This quotation appeared in Hale’s previously mentioned article titled “Eagle Creek fire will keep some Columbia Gorge trails closed until spring.” Once again, we should have clearly credited the reporter who acquired the quotation.
This article was also plagiarized in the eighth paragraph which states, “Several popular hikes are located in the middle of the blaze, including Eagle Creek, Wahclella Falls, Munra Point, Angels Rest, Larch Mountain, Oneonta Gorge, and Horsetail Falls.” Hale’s article reads, “But many popular hikes are in the middle of the blaze, including Eagle Creek, Wahclella Falls, Munra Point, Angels Rest, Larch Mountain, Oneonta Gorge and Horsetail Falls.” While the affected trails were common knowledge, the article’s language should have been more carefully paraphrased.
Hale’s article goes on to state, “There are, of course, plenty of other places to hike – even within the gorge. So far, the fire hasn’t done much damage to trails on the Washington side of the Columbia River, and if that holds true, they could become a popular refuge for those who want to hike the gorge before spring.” The VanCougar’s story also says in the eighth paragraph, “However, there are plenty of other places to hike within the Gorge—and even outside of the Gorge. The fire has not done a lot of damage to trails on the Washington side of the Gorge, and could become increasingly popular among those looking to hike before spring.” Our language here should have been more carefully paraphrased.
The final paragraph of The VanCougar’s story also plagiarizes Hale’s article by saying, “As the scenic area heals, respect the closures and let the trail crews do their job.” Hale’s article reads, “But as the scenic area heals, the message from the forest service is clear: Respect the closures and let the trail crews – and nature – do their work.” We would have been wise to avoid this language all together and pick a unique closing that did not so closely mirror Hale’s language. We also failed to credit the source of the sentiment in Hale’s piece, the U.S. Forest Service.
These corrections were compiled in consultation with Raul Moreno, a university adviser to The VanCougar.
Update 10/16/2017: We have since identified two additional cases of plagiarism in issues 1 and 3 of our print issues. These instances are detailed below.
Issue 1: “Friends Quiz” (Aug. 21, 2017)
We published a quiz in our print issue that used both questions and an image from a quiz produced by Buzzfeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/yougoodfam/which-friends-main-character-are-you-32nf2?utm_term=.iaKk4bjbz#.fbvZxprpn We have removed this quiz from the PDF copy of the issue online because of copyright concerns. This was clearly plagiarism and should not have been published at all.
Issue 3: “Quiz: Put Your Disney Knowledge to the Test”
We published a quiz in our print issue that used both questions and images from a quiz produced by Buzzfeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/basicdisney/can-you-pass-this-insanely-hard-disney-trivia-test-1ap2x?utm_term=.eoGMak7kN#.sep1x5L5Q We have removed this quiz from the PDF copy of the issue online because of copyright concerns. This was clearly plagiarism and should not have been published at all.
A Note From Managing Editor Steven Cooper
When I accepted the managing editor position at the paper last spring, I fully expected the job to entail significant work. However, I never expected all the challenges we’ve faced over the last couple months.
In recent weeks, criticism has been leveled at our publication—not just regarding the plagiarism we address elsewhere in this issue, but also publication delays and content quality. I’m here to tell you a little bit about the challenges of running a student publication as small as ours, where we went wrong and what we are doing to bring our paper up to the standards you, the readers, deserve.
Staffing has been our most formidable challenge. Until last week, we were in desperate need of a new layout manager and reporters. Considering how few people are on campus during summer, we didn’t receive enough applications to make informed hiring decisions until fall semester began. Once we knew who to hire and submitted the request to the university, hiring procedures and paperwork for some hires took four or more weeks before the people were officially on staff and able to work.
For our second and third issues, that meant large workloads and publication delays. Our layout manager at the time was also our web and social media manager. In addition to completely remaking our drastically outdated website (reveal coming this month!), he also had to balance layout responsibilities, senior projects, an off-campus job, designing a new website for The VanCougar and personal responsibilities. Just before layout on the second issue, he had a family emergency and was attempting to complete layout from a hospital waiting room. I ended up coming to campus at 6:20 a.m. to complete layout myself and send it to print in time for distribution later that day.
When trying to schedule layout for our third issue, our layout manager’s family emergency was still ongoing, and Editor in Chief Rachel Wilson was confronted with an even more significant family emergency herself. Meeting our initial publication deadline proved impossible.
And layout wasn’t our only obstacle. Until this issue, the paper only had one reporter and two team editors on staff. That meant that in order to produce content, editors had to report stories themselves—leaving less time for editing. While all stories were examined by an editor before print, not enough time was available to catch the errors we address in this issue. The heavy workload meant that some stories weren’t even getting turned in on time.
None of these factors excuse the plagiarism we address in this issue. The VanCougar adheres to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which calls on journalists to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work and states that “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” We take this seriously enough to devote an entire issue to correcting our errors. However, I do hope this background explains the factors that contributed to this situation.
We’re implementing several strategies to make sure previous problems don’t continue to plague us. Our biggest improvement will be adding sufficient staff. We now have three new reporters and a new layout manager. We’re also going to hire several more reporters in the coming weeks. With a more evenly distributed workload, this will free up editors to thoroughly edit every piece we publish. Our internal procedures are being updated to ensure that every story is not just viewed, but actually edited by a minimum of two editors.
We’re also going to work with our student media advisor to provide workshops for staff that emphasize how to conduct high-quality ethical reporting that avoids issues plagiarism. I believe recent events prove that anyone can make mistakes. My hope is that almost all problems will be caught by reporters themselves, rather than always relying on editors.
We are also in the process of updating our staff manuals with resources for reporters and clear checklists for what a complete story includes. We’re a campus that doesn’t have a journalism program, so providing resources ourselves in even more important.
Finally, from now on the paper will place a greater emphasis on content critiques and corrections. Staff meetings will include a critique of the paper and our internal procedures will be updated to provide a clear process on how we issue corrections. In addition to preventing significant problems like plagiarism, I believe these improvements will significantly improve the quality of our content.
We will of course continue to face challenges. Even when we had an excessively lean staff, we struggled to find times for weekly staff meetings. Many of our staff members work off campus, and nobody has the same class schedule. We now have two separate meetings times each week that should accommodate our entire staff, but we still expect to face challenges as we work around our staff members’ schedules.
Educational and training resources are also still a problem. We are blessed with a $57,650 budget and an excellent student media advisor, but we have zero academic resources and our campus doesn’t have a journalism program as I mentioned. That means staff training is entirely dictated by Rachel and me. The independence and flexibility is great, but it doesn’t make our job any easier.
These past few weeks have given me invaluable knowledges both about journalism and management. This job requires significant dedication, but I still enjoy it. Moving forward, I’m more excited than ever for the future of our publication.
I encourage you, the readers, to follow our progress. We strive to be as open and transparent as possible. Read our content with a critical eye. Challenge and correct us if warranted. Know that we are more committed than ever to providing high-quality, ethical and honest reporting you can rely on to stay informed about campus.
The VanCougar Managing Editor 2017-2018