Plagiarism at the top: the Jayson Blair and the New York Times scandal

A Fragile TrustOn Tuesday, January 27, 2015, OU SPJ partnered with Scripps Howard Visiting Professional Andy Alexander’s Ethics, Mass Media and Society class to show the documentary A Fragile Trust. About 100 students attended the showing of the film, which discussed “plagiarism, power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times.” Students were also encouraged to tweet about the film and the following discussion using the hashtag #AFragileTrustOU.

The documentary began with the start of Blair’s career at the New York Times, his history of plagiarism, his drug and alcohol abuse, his struggle with bipolar disorder, and the article that uncovered the whole scandal. Blair plagiarized information from many different sources, in order to remain unseen. As his mental health deteriorated, he resigned from the staff in 2003. The New York Times became suspicious and eventually discovered that much of Blair’s work had, in fact, been plagiarized and copied from other sources. This entire event created a lot of controversy and negative publicity for the New York Times, which continues to rebuild its reputation to this day.

Following the film, Prof. Alexander led a discussion about the scandal and plagiarism in journalism. He started the discussion by asking students why they thought Blair would do something like this, and the majority agreed that Blair had cheated and lied in order to work his way to the top and compete against his peers in the newsroom.

The discussion then shifted to the question of whether or not the system at the New York Times worked. Generally, everyone agreed that the system worked, but worked too slowly. The next question was an obvious follow-up: how to we eliminate plagiarism from journalism? Students suggested more vigorous editing, source checking, and the use of software that detects commonalities in articles across sources.

Overall, the event was very informational and allowed the future journalists in the room a chance to reflect on the importance of truthfulness and ethics in the field.

Join us next Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 5 p.m. in Scripps 111 to hear from Mark Somerson, Science Editor at The Columbus Dispatch about the importance of environmental reporting.


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