Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Columbia School of Journalism Cheating Scandal
(12/9/2006)

Much to the delight of media critics, the Columbia School of Journalism is embroiled in a cheating scandal involving its exam for the required ethics course, "Critical Issues in Journalism." Students taking the open book ethics test had been given a 48-hour period to sign onto a Columbia website. Then they had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions after they logged in. One student, and maybe more than one, reported to the school's administrators that there had been cheating going on, but didn't name names.

Despite school efforts to keep the story in-house, it was broken by the blog RadarOnline and then picked up by the mainstream media. Still, details are sketchy. Columbia officials, who commanded all who had taken the course to attend a specially convened heart-to-heart meeting about the importance of ethics, won't even explain what the nature of the cheating was. Not that they really need to. Let's figure it out: you have 48 hours to log on and get the questions, and once you read them, an hour and a half to think about it and write your answers. Do you think someone who took the test early in the 48 hour period and therefore knew the questions might have passed them on to others so that they had more than 90 minutes to consider their answers? Could that be it, perhaps?

Rush Limbaugh, among others, had a field day with the story, putting his tongue firmly in his cheek and declaring that the cheating student should be graduate with honors, since he perfectly embodied the profession's fondness for leaking secrets. After all, he crowed, how could the same profession that routinely publishes secret government anti-terrorist programs claim that a student who leaked test answers is unethical?

Cute, Rush. The Scoreboard yields to no one in its contempt for the ethics of journalists, but Limbaugh's joke misses much of the unethical business afoot, which went far beyond revealing test questions and which raise serious questions, as opposed to Limbaugh's facetious ones, about whether the nation's most prestigious school of journalism understands ethics at all.

Let us begin with the test itself. It is fine to say that one shouldn't have to guard against cheating on an ethics test, but for a professor to structure a test so that it is ridiculously easy to cheat is itself unethical. The teacher has a duty to protect honest and ethical students by taking reasonable care not to facilitate cheating by the dishonest ones. Would a professor tell students that he was posting the exam questions on his office door, but that they were honor bound not to look at them before the test? Would any sane professor mail every student copies of the questions after telling them that it would be cheating for them to open the envelope? What the professor did in the ethics exam was nearly as bad. It was a mathematical certainty that some student would pass along the questions, but the professor either didn't figure that out, or didn't care.

This doesn't excuse the cheaters, but there is no question that the idiotic and lazy design of the test was substantially responsible for their dishonesty. I once had a wonderful well-behaved English Mastiff named Patience. One day I had a full plate of hot bacon as a special Sunday breakfast treat (either that, or my wife was trying to kill me), and the smell was driving the dog crazy. I told her to lie down and stay, and she did. But I left the plate of bacon on the coffee table when I had to go up stairs to get something, and when I returned, the plate was empty and the dog was sitting in the corner, shamefaced, whimpering, and full of bacon. The temptation had been too much; I couldn't bring myself to be angry at her. Leaving a plate of hot bacon within easy reach of a perpetually ravenous dog was almost cruel. Yes, she was a bacon thief, but I had made her one.

Now let us assess student who reported the cheating, but not the cheater. The Scoreboard hates to be a hardliner so frequently, but it would suspend that student until and unless he named his cheating colleague. What kind of "ethics" does the Columbia School of Journalism support? If Jason Blair's colleagues at the New York Times were aware that he was making up stories, would they refuse to expose him? A profession that has aspirations of ethical conduct must endorse and insist upon self-policing measures, which means turning in cheaters, be they friends, lovers, or mentors. Reporting that cheating has occurred without including the detail of who was involved is a self-serving half-measure, and as such, is itself unethical. A student in a class has absolutely no ethical duty to cheaters, but a clear ethical duty to the school and the other members of the class who have taken a test fairly. The student who reported the cheating to the administrators without revealing the cheater's identity was putting a non-existing ethical duty above real ones. That student flunks ethics.

Limbaugh's satirical point does have some legitimacy. Journalists, as readers of the Scoreboard have read here with monotonous consistency, extol the virtue of confidentiality to an absurd extent, even when it protects criminals and unethical professionals, as it frequently does. It should not be a surprise that this warped feature of the profession's ethical culture would tend to persuade a journalism student that keeping a cheater's name secret is the right thing to do, for what is a leaker if not a cheat?

In its article about the exam scandal, the New York Times quoted Columbia School of Journalism students who professed fear that publicity about cheating on the school's ethics exam would devalue their degrees. But it is not the act of the cheater that casts genuine doubt on the values being taught there. It is the ineptitude of the professor, the laxity of the administrators, and the backwards priorities of the student or students who reported the infraction. For Rush Limbaugh's basic observation was correct: when it comes to ethics, U.S. journalism is thoroughly confused.



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