Plagiarism is more than just shortcut, laziness

April 12, 2014 at 4:02 p.m.
Updated April 11, 2014 at 11:12 p.m.

Macarena Hernandez

Macarena Hernandez

More than a decade ago, a New York Times reporter plagiarized one of my stories. Back then, I worked as the Rio Grande bureau chief for the San Antonio Express-News. It was a blatant copy-and-paste. No attribution. No credit. Nada.

Turns out, Jayson Blair had not traveled to Los Fresnos to interview the mother of a missing solider in Iraq. (This was mere weeks after the beginning of the war in Iraq.) Blair had never set foot in her house, even though his story said otherwise. And he hadn't interviewed any of the relatives quoted in his story.

Take the lead, for example:

He wrote: "Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. She proudly points up to the ceiling fan."

Eight days earlier, I had written similar words: "So the single mother, a teacher's aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room. She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first-born and only son."

(Side note: the Martha Stewart furniture was not out in the patio, but in a box next to her kitchen table, which is why I wrote that line the way I did.)

The situation was made more complicated by the fact that I knew Blair. Five years before that incident, we had both been young interns at The New York Times. That summer, there were four of us. We were all ambitious and hard-working. We all got offered extended internships that could lead to full-time jobs. That meant at least nine more months in one of the world's most powerful newsrooms. I left my packed boxes behind, excited about returning to New York City and grateful to be traveling to Texas to visit with my family.

Two days after I returned to South Texas, my father was killed in a car accident about a mile from our home. We were all devastated. My mother was heartbroken and couldn't imagine living alone. As the only unmarried child of eight, I moved in with her. I taught English at La Joya High School, where I had graduated from a few years earlier. In the evenings with my mother, I watched "La Mentira," ("The Lie") a Mexican soap opera, and I tried not to think about what my life could have been. To this day, I don't regret returning to the Rio Grande Valley instead of extending my Times internship.

I hadn't really thought about Jayson until I read his story - I mean my story - that night in April 2003. Needless to say, within days of the discovery, the incident became an international scandal. For months, reporters from all over the world called me for comment.

Since then, I have traveled extensively throughout the United States and abroad to places like Hamburg, Germany, and Caracas, Venezuela, to talk about the consequences of plagiarism. Educators everywhere tell me that in this copy-and-paste culture, it is easier than ever to steal. (It is also easier to get caught.) Academic dishonesty, they agree, is still a serious problem. Some say students may just not know how to properly credit sources. Other offenders, they say, are just lazy. They all agree we need to continue having conversations about plagiarism and academic integrity.

In my talks, I tell students that it might feel as if it is "no big deal"; it's just a school paper. I tell them, you - without realizing it - are deciding whether you're going to rely on shortcuts or soldier through even when you'd rather give up. What's worse, you're denting your self-confidence. You'll never feel like what you are capable of is good enough. (I also remind them that good writing is just a lot of rewriting.)

After all, our choices feed our moral compass. If you start cutting corners now, you're more likely to operate that way in the future. Don't believe me?

Consider this: After reporters looked into Blair's work, they found he had been plagiarizing and fabricating all the way back to high school.

Macarena Hernandez is the Victoria Advocate Endowed Professor of the Humanities at the University of Houston-Victoria. Join us at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Victoria Fine Arts Center for a free screening of "A Fragile Trust," a film that explores the scandal. The film will air nationally May 5 on PBS.



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