Archive | October 2011

The Daily Cougar’s Plagiarism Problem

The Daily Cougar has a very big problem. You could say this problem stems from UH, where students are supposed to learn about journalism. Or you could say it stems even further back to early grade school when we first learn it’s not right to plagiarize others’ intellectual works. Or to when we are children and learn it’s not right to steal anything that isn’t yours.

Wherever the roots of this problem may stem from, the effects are clear – plagiarism is rampant at The Daily Cougar.

In the summer, about 50% or more of the ‘student paper’ articles stemmed largely from UH News releases, and some seemed to have been quickly rewritten with a thesaurus. Professor David McHam encourages his Reporting students to read these propaganda releases for story ideas, but perhaps he didn’t adequately explain to them that they shouldn’t plagiarize them.

Example 1:

Look at this article, for instance
It mentions a quote comes from a press release, but fails to mention that nearly the entire article is just the press release rewritten, or what some might call plagiarism.

The only original part of the daily cougar story – i.e. part not found in the press release (seen here )- was this quote: “’We will assess the extent of the pollution with the dioxin and PCBs and make recommendations on identifying historical and other current sources if they exist to the state and (Environmental Protection Agency),’ Rifai said.”

Example 2:

See if you can spot the difference between this “story” by the daily cougar and this press release by UH’s propaganda office.

There are more recent examples as well…

Example 3:

Tonight I was told “You are rude, high maintenance and your writing skills still need a lot of work, so before you criticize my section you need to work on your writing first” by Special Projects editor Reesha Brown.

This was in response to this (completely quoted) email:
“ I wish you had responded to this email and told me that you only needed one story so I didn’t waste my time writing stuff you didn’t save space for .  I turned in a paper late so I could do these well.
Why didn’t you run the marijuana one? I thought you said it sounded most interesting, so I put a lot of work into it. Weren’t there any head shops that could’ve advertised in the insert?
Why do a story about blood pressure in a student paper?
How many students have BP problems?”

Not the rudest thing I’ve ever written, but you can’t tell from her response. I mention this to show that the plagiarism may go deeper than inadequate education to what kind of students UH (and maybe all schools) seem to have an abundance of: students trained to value obedience and lack critical thinking. These fairly innocent questions became rude because they weren’t deferential enough to her authority, which she has been taught throughout her life should not be questioned.

Wanting to see how I could sharpen my writing skills that “need a lot of work”, I looked her up on The Daily Cougar’s website.
The first story of hers I looked at was this (article removed.)

Being the cynic, I googled to check for plagiarism.
This is what I found
I won’t do a thorough analysis, but here are the intros (unedited) of these nearly identical articles:

Reesha Brown (rewrite):
A recently released report by the Pesticide Action Network North America and Commonwealth found that Americans can experience up to 70 daily exposures to residues of a class of toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), according to the organization’s website.
The report analyzes chemical residue data collected by the US Food and Drug Administration and finds persistent chemical contaminants in all food groups, from your grocer’s baked goods and meats to fresh fruits and veggies.
Here’s the problem: Exposure to POPs has been linked to serious diseases and developmental disorders, including breast and other types of cancer, immune system suppression, nervous system disorders, reproductive damage and disruption of hormone systems.

Panna.org(source of rewrite):
U.S. consumers can experience up to 70 daily exposures to residues of a class of toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants–POPs–through their diets, according to report released by Pesticide Action Network North America and Commonweal.

The report, “Nowhere to Hide: Persistent Toxic Chemicals in the U.S. Food Supply,” analyzes chemical residue data collected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and finds persistent chemical contaminants in all food groups–from baked goods and meats to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Exposure to POPs has been linked to serious disease and developmental disorders, including breast and other types of cancer, immune system suppression, nervous system disorders, reproductive damage, and disruption of hormonal systems.

————————

She does mention that she found the first part on the organization’s website, but she is wrong that the report is recent.  It’s from 2000.  The rest of the story makes it seem as if she actually read the report, which, if she had, she would surely know it wasn’t recent.  Notice how she uses almost the exact sentences, but changes little things like “hormonal systems” to “hormone systems” to avoid plagiarism detection.

Example 4:

Then I looked up a couple more stories. This was the 3rd one I googled:

This article looks like it was mostly copied from Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers – a daytime TV show.

In both examples she relies almost completely on one source, rewriting much of what it says.  Rather than learning how to investigate social issues, ask hard questions, develop sources and all of the other things that journalists should learn, many students seem to be learning how to rewrite press releases.

Perhaps it is time The Daily Cougar start considering making a move similar to The Red and Black at the University of Georgia, who is shifting it’s daily news production to digital.  This will hopefully end the practice of  “putting stuff in the paper that didn’t deserve to be there” in order to fill the often unread pages in traditional ink and paper daily newspapers.

Hopefully  by posting these stories here, something will be done, but I remain cynical.  So in the mean time – I will just try not to think how much money Reesha made for rewriting articles and putting ads around stories written for her at no cost. I will try to be happy knowing that at least some people will read this and confirm I’m not crazy for being outraged that someone can achieve an editor position at the school paper and plagiarize and it will probably not matter much. I doubt they will even run a retraction/correction. (They never publicized the event, only removing one of the plagiarized examples mentioned in this post.) They didn’t the first time I told them about this.

Maybe Reesha will be punished, maybe even fired – but it will likely end there as just a freak occurrence.  It will not likely be seen as indicative of  systemic flaws in UH’s journalism education program or the school’s basic newspaper’s policies and practices. (It wasn’t.)

It is much easier to just let “fecal gravity” take care of the situation though; and the boulder always seems to roll as far down hill as it can, onto those with the least power and responsibility.

For those who care enough to have made it this far, I encourage you to vote in this poll, answering the question :Should Reesha Brown be fired for plagiarism?  and I encourage you to share your opinion in the comment section.

Take Poll Here

I also encourage anyone else interested in this problem to read The Daily Cougar and look for stories that look like rewrites.  They might be overly technical or seem better than you are used to for the school paper.  Direct quotes, statistics and other substantial pieces of a story are a good starting place for detecting plagiarism.  You can also search for key words like “press release,” which  currently has 184 hits.

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UH Propaganda Mill

Richard Bonnin, or as he is known around my apartment – Mr. Goebbels, is in charge of the propaganda department at UH.
This department tries its best to control all communication at the university, but unfortunately can’t control student email.
When my first emails as a reporter for the daily cougar were rerouted to him, I asked:
“What do you think it says about the school that, despite our being “Tier One,” the faculty aren’t capable of answering questions about their area of expertise without running it through the PR department? How many examples are there when a faculty said something false that harmed the university? What cause do you have for this communication domination?,” as well as some other choice questions.
Mr. Bonnin responded by emailing the school paper Editor in Chief, Jack “I read more books than you” Wehman, and Jack added it to my dossier without mentioning it to me.
Why would Bonnin do this instead of responding to my email and trying to resolve the issue?
Because propaganda ministers make their money by profiting from lack of understanding, rather than trying to create understanding?
For instance, UH has been bragging for almost a year about being included in a Best-of book by the Princeton Review, another propaganda master. Princeton Review, which is not affiliated with Princeton University (but surely won’t mind if you’re confused) makes money by having a huge list of colleges that it calls the “best” – 376 this year. UH made it onto this list finally, after a special visit from the Princeton Review team (probably paid for by UH), and now they can say that they are one of Princeton Review’s “best” schools without quantifying it or realizing we are probably at the bottom of the 376 schools (the list hasn’t been released yet.)
UH also seems to require all administrators to say Tier One at least 50 times a day, despite no one knowing what it is. In my opinion it’s a euphemism for business-like growth. We need to get bigger – especially since there are many rich connected businessmen on the Board of Regents ( a common phenomenon.)  Them and their friends won’t get wealthy by paying professors more (in 2004 UH spent as much on instructional expenses as many community colleges – coming in 3rd from the bottom in a study by Texas Public Policy Foundation), but massive construction projects might do the trick.

This Tier One campaign can be traced back to the propaganda department, which handles these kinds of initiatives.  According to a Board of Regents document “National and Local Media Placements” had 1.3B total viewers and $118M Market value in 2011. Messages supporting Tier One were measured in “impressions” – 92.8 million total, at a cost of .005 each, for a grand total of 464,000$ – just in 2011.
With all of this financial support for propaganda, its a wonder that anyone can question the school’s greatness. And its no wonder that the “student” paper is so ineffectual when you compare their meager budget, which mostly goes to administrators (rather than students) to the multi-million dollar budget of the public relations department.  It is like comparing America’s leftist newspapers to the mighty Pentagon public relations industry.
Eric Gerber, Executive Director of the propaganda department, is even allowed to come in to the Reporting class and put a friendly, seemingly honest face on the PR department – telling students that they do spin things, but we have to work with them and they’re not so bad.
I think this quote from the UH propaganda website sums things up nicely:
“The Office of University Communication seeks to maximize significant positive media coverage of the university, its people and programs by cultivating relationships with reporters and editors to improve acceptance of story ideas, facilitating media’s ability to access information and by communicating effectively about the achievements of the institution, its faculty and students, externally and internally.”
They’ve done an admirable job of cultivating relationships from what I can tell. So far I have found two propaganda-ish half truths in my reporting on the school, and both of them are apparently better for the “opinion section.”  I told my reporting professor about what I thought was a good lede.   Unfortunately it involved President Khator and Carl Carlucci, so it was apparently meaningless.
Well done, Goebbels and team. Keep up the good lies.