When the University of Minnesota Athletics Department emailed the student editors of the Minnesota Daily claiming that an interview with a swim coach that appeared in a story didn't actually happen, no one wanted to believe it.
There were lots of reasons why it could have been a misunderstanding. The Daily sports writer in question, rising junior Grant Donald, could have contacted the coach directly, bypassing the athletic department. Or the coach could have just forgotten that they'd spoken. It seemed impossible that Donald would actually make up quotes from a real person, something that's bound to get noticed.
So Donald's editor called him to clarify, then followed with a barrage of texts. When Donald kept silent, and accusations that he'd fabricated interviews for two other stories published reached the Daily, the editors started to sweat.
Sports editor Ben Gotz says he didn't hear back from Donald until two days later. The embattled student admitted he made up interviews in at least three stories. Gotz fired him on the spot.
“He was very remorseful,” Gotz recalled. “He was clearly downtrodden. You could see it on his face. He knew what he did and he knew that our hands were tied. He knew this was something that's going to follow him for a while.”
The Minnesota Daily pays student reporters for 15 hours a week, but doing the job often means double that workload — and holding a priority over studies. Still, there's a sense that the field experience can be a more realistic education than sitting in a classroom, learning about it in theory.
“I know it's a struggle, and a lot of people do end up dropping out from the Daily because it's intensive,” Gotz says. “Especially in this situation with Grant, I'd say there were things outside of work life that were getting to him. I wish he'd communicated that.”
University rules lay out a steep sequence of sanctions for plagiarism and fabrication, ranging to expulsion. Leniency for first offenders stems from the idea that university is, after all, a place where young people are allowed to screw up.
J-schools, on the other hand, are notoriously intolerant.
“You fail my class if I catch you plagiarizing or fabricating,” says media ethics and law professor Jane Kirtley. “If you're making something up, there's no way you can argue that was done in good faith. It was done deliberately to deceive.”
Kirtley points to The New Republic's Stephen Glass and The New York Times' Jayson Blair as rising stars who made up stories and never lived them down. Though others may have been able to rehabilitate their reputations over time, she tries to plant the fear of god in students early. “For those who are beginning their careers, sometimes the line is hard to draw,” Kirtley says.
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