Journalism School Probes Possible Cheating on Ethics Exam

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

NEW YORK -- It was an ethics exam in a journalism class, and someone may have cheated.

Ironic? Yes. Unfortunate? Certainly. But what made the incident particularly notable was where and when it took place: at Columbia University, one of the premier journalism schools in the country, at a time when media ethics are much in question.

On Friday, Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism convened a meeting to discuss misconduct in the final exam for the required ethics course "Critical Issues in Journalism."

But the school was so wary of making specific accusations that, afterward, it was not even clear what misconduct had taken place.

Students had been given a 48-hour period to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam. They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

But at least one student reported cheating to the school's administrators -- without giving any names, said students who attended the meeting. first reported about the investigation on Thursday, and the New York Times ran a story Friday. The Romenesko blog, which focuses on stories about the news media, linked to both Friday morning.

That afternoon, when the journalism school's deans convened the tense meeting, mandatory for all those enrolled in the course, about a dozen upset students lined up at a microphone to ask why deans were not doing more to apprehend the culprit, and to plead with other students to turn in the cheater in their midst, said students who attended.

After the meeting, students milled outside the school, discussing the problem with a level of anxiety that seemed to say more about the precarious state of journalism -- in an era of Jayson Blair-style fabrications and shrinking newspaper jobs -- than about one or several graduate students cheating on a test.

"It's going to affect us for years to come," said Jack Gillum, 23. "Columbia's going to have this badge of dishonor."

"If people did cheat, it makes me really angry," he added, noting that he pays much of his $43,422 yearly tuition and fees by himself and does not want his degree to be devalued.

"There's kind of a palpable fear: What's going to happen when you go for a job interview?" said Caroline Preston, 26.

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