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A Lesson About Copycats

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Plagiarism is a serious crime in journalism; it can be embarrassing and career-ending. But what if the plagiarists are children who won the KidsPost poetry contest, children who said the work was their own?

The winning poems were published Tuesday. Two of them, submitted by children as original, were not original. Seventeen readers noticed, including 10-year-old Hannah Engle of Alexandria, who wrote to me to name the original authors and suggested: "You should check the winners to make sure they did not do such a thing."

KidsPost editors went to extraordinary lengths this year to check because of plagiarism last year. The contest started four years ago, is held during National Poetry Month and is widely used by teachers. This year's contest drew about 1,150 entries.

KidsPost editor Marylou Tousignant announced the contest on March 26 and included a big yellow warning box headlined "Original Work Only." That yellow box said (boldface words included): "Your poem must be your own work , not something you copied or read somewhere or heard someone say. It must come from inside your head! Taking someone else's words or thoughts and offering them as your own is called plagiarism . . . Teachers (and newspaper editors) aren't happy if you do that."

Then Tousignant called each of the winners and their parents and quizzed them separately about whether the entry was original and point-blank asked if it had been copied. She received assurances in all cases that the work was the children's own. As an added precaution, the KidsPost staff ran lines of the winning poems through Google.

When Hannah read "Horrible, Just Horrible," ostensibly by a 10-year-old Stafford girl, she thought she had read it before. She told her fifth-grade teacher, Sharon Riley, who took the students to the library at Fairfax's Waynewood Elementary School, where they found the poem, "One Out of Sixteen," by Shel Silverstein. Searching the Internet, Riley and students found that a winning poem, called "Eraser," by a 6-year-old Williamsburg girl, was heavily dependent on "The Eraser Poem" by Louis Phillips.

Tousignant called the girls and their parents. She and the 6-year-old's mother believe the girl may have misunderstood because she copied the visual gimmick -- words and letters are erased one by one -- but she used slightly different words. The 10-year-old simply lied and finally admitted it to Tousignant. Her father apologized and asked me to tell his daughter just how serious plagiarism is.

Tousignant said she is "embarrassed and saddened, although I am not sure what else we could have done." A correction appeared Friday. Tousignant suggested that next year Hannah Engle and her class ought to verify the winners' originality.

Another winning entry, from a 12-year-old from Fairfax, disturbed some readers because it was so dark. Called "I Am the Daughter of a Father Who Hates," the poem said: "I wonder why my Father yells and hits" and "I think of the horrible things he has done."

Tousignant talked to the girl's mother several times. The daughter had witnessed some trying times before her parents divorced, but her mother assured Tousignant that the girl is safe and was writing about her past. Tousignant wisely decided not to use the girl's last name.

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About 20 readers protested, and a few praised, a stark Page 1 Associated Press photo in Wednesday's editions of a dying child named Ali Hussein being lifted from the dusty rubble of his home after a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad's Sadr City. The caption said he died at a hospital.

Some readers thought it was an antiwar statement; some felt it was in poor taste; others were reminded of their children and didn't want them to see it. Todd Ellinwood of Arlington wrote: "I do not expect to receive the news in an antiseptic fashion -- bad things happen that an informed citizen should be aware of -- but a picture of a toddler in his dying moments is beyond the pale."

Tom Huff of Bealeton thought the picture was "politically motivated. It gives the impression that the war in Iraq is unusually cruel to civilians . . . Note that the militants have used the brutal practice of attacking our troops from civilian populations with the very goal of provoking retaliatory strikes and getting this exact picture onto the front pages of American newspapers." I checked hundreds of U.S. front pages at the Newseum Web site and saw it nowhere else.

Sean Neary of Kensington said, "As horrible as the image is, I applaud The Post for having the courage to print it, especially on the front page . . . Americans needed a wake-up call to the true horror of war. And they got it in the photo of young Ali Hussein."

Bonnie Jo Mount, deputy assistant managing editor/photos, said, "We often publish images of war in the form of inanimate objects: blown-up vehicles, piles of debris, missiles in the air. The injured child reflected the civilian toll and related directly to the news of the day. We have a responsibility to inform our readership; sometimes that means publishing images that might make people uncomfortable."

Executive Editor Len Downie is cautious about such photos. "We have seldom been able to show the human impact of the fighting on Iraqis. We decided this was a rare instance in which we had a powerful image with which to do so."

My first reaction was to wish the photo off Page 1, but I changed my mind. The photo packed more of an emotional wallop than almost any image since that of the little naked girl running from napalm during the Vietnam War. It was a stunning reminder that not only soldiers die in wars.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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