When I was a junior in high school, I took an independent study from the resident journalism teacher. I was supposed to study something about feminism and write a lengthy report on it. Well, I was also the yearbook editor and involved in a gazillion other things and I never really understood my assignment so when I still had another few pages to write and a deadline looming, I plagiarized significant passages from one of the textbooks I was using. It took her months to figure out where I stole the words from, but when she did, she promptly changed my grade to an F and called my parents. My mom was a fellow public school teacher and my dad was a pastor in our small town.
It was excruciatingly embarrassing to go through and my parents and siblings were deeply ashamed. This probably helps explain why my parents — in the section of the yearbook where other parents placed ads gushing over and praising their children — wrote “Mollie Kathleen — you have certainly made life challenging.”
The incident left a deep impression on me. Where I had been a stellar and confident student, I became much more cautious and reserved. I realized that I was copying or plagiarizing regularly and that the deception had creeped into other areas of my life. My parents punished me, talked to me at length about the Seventh and Eighth Commandments, and told me to take the time I needed to turn my life around. Getting busted and being forced to come clean affected where I went to school, how much time I spent on my work, the career path I chose and even how I interacted with people.
Almost 15 years later, my past is not completely escapable. Editors frequently tell me I source too much information in my stories. My quotes never read as nicely as other reporters because I take them down word for word instead of cleaning them up like most folks do. And feel compelled to be very open about this incident because it seems only fair that editors and reporters know they are dealing with someone who was capable at one time of stealing someone else’s words.
And the thing is — getting busted for plagiarism was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I can not tell you how thankful I am that someone caught me and cared enough about me to hold me accountable. I can not tell you how thankful I am that my parents not only punished me but helped me overcome my problems. I became a much better student in the long run and much more honest.
I’m writing all this because today the Washington Post accepted the resignation of a blogger they had hired only a few days ago. Ben Domenech, who has written for a number of media outlets, has, it seems, repeatedly and brazenly plagiarized. And journalists get busted every few days or months for this. As the Post says:
Plagiarism is perhaps the most serious offense that a writer can commit or be accused of. Washingtonpost.com will do everything in its power to verify that its news and opinion content is sourced completely and accurately at all times.
Journalism is unique in that it relies on trust between the reader and writer. And when that trust is destroyed, the quality of the relationship suffers horribly. We also forget that, for a profession that tends to ignore or deemphasize religious influence, our journalism standards are indelibly linked to religious values of telling the truth, taking care of our neighbors, not coveting the work of others, etc.
Ben Domenech needs to take full responsibility for his errors, repent of them and change his behavior. But the good news, which he needs to hear and probably won’t hear much of as people attack him in the next few days, is that he can be forgiven for what he has done and he can rebuild trust with his colleagues, family, friends and the public.