In 1981, 26-year-old Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a ground-breaking story about an 8-year-old Heroin addict. The Prize was hastily returned after The Washington Post found the story to be nearly completely fabricated. Cooke disappeared from the public eye.
In 1998, 26-year-old Stephen Glass published a story about a young hacker at a tech company. His editor at The New Republic suspected the tech company did not exist. He called a company executive’s number provided by Glass, and later discovered that the executive was actually Glass’s brother. Glass’s career fell apart.
In 2003, 27-year-old Jayson Blair was fired from the New York Times for plagiarism and fabrication. He had crafted entirely fictional scenes in his articles, lied about his location, and lifted quotes from other sources. Blair exited the journalism industry for good.
These cases, among countless others, are examples of what we would now call #fakenews—or in other words, plagiarism, fabrication and misrepresentation: three cardinal sins according to The Center for Ethics in Journalism. Though legal repercussions are murkier to shell out, it’s clear that these three professionals’ careers were ruined. Their affinity for substituting fiction as truth costed them their public trustworthiness. If they had not been caught, what lies would they still be spinning now, when it seems the market for sensational stories is bigger than ever?
Taking a look back now, the journalism world has reached a unanimous decision: what these reporters did was ethically wrong and ultimately inexcusable. But these problems are increasingly not unique to journalism. Recently, the three cardinal sins have popped up elsewhere: college applications.
The only barrier standing between a student and resume inflation is a moral one. It’s a well-known fact that college admissions officers go through hundreds of files a day, and spend very little time on each app (Wall Street Journal reports 8 minutes or less). The odds of an officer bothering to verify a student’s accomplishments are low; the only other possible “tells” are if the student’s teacher recommendations don’t match his shining resume, or if his English grades are suspiciously low for someone with a killer college essay. With the increasingly intense competition to get into elite schools, the temptation for students to plagiarize on personal essays, fabricate accomplishments, and purposely misrepresent themselves on the college application is bigger than ever.
Like the journalism industry, there have been notables who were caught red-handed and taken to court for their crimes—Adam Wheeler’s web of deception for Harvard, and Akash Maharaj’s falsified application information for Yale. However, for every Cooke or Wheeler brought to the spotlight, plenty more fabricators hide in the woodworks.
One emerged recently when she requested to connect with me on LinkedIn. I was very impressed with this high schooler’s resume—a founder of a global organization, a TedX speaker, an advocate for minorities and women’s voices—when I stumbled across a portion of her resume that seemed suspiciously similar to mine. There are not that many “award-winning teen celebrity journalists” in the industry—I would know, as one myself. Suddenly her one-on-one interviews with the likes of Malala, Gal Gadot, Oprah, Emma Watson, and other kick-ass women seemed more than fishy, especially since there was not a single photo of her with these stars.
After poking around her website and two respected media outlets that she posted her interviews on, I discovered that her “exclusive” interviews–posted since August–were transcripts of video interviews by other journalists. She inserted herself into situations she was never present at, citing specific details like a star smiling at her. This wasn’t the mere mistake of mis-citing—she had gone to the effort of transcribing videos (which is a time-consuming thing, trust me) and building websites, email addresses, and twitter accounts. She was also getting validated on her LinkedIn with over 2,000 followers, with some viewers (some real, some fake that she had created) posting affirming comments on her blog posts. She even used a young actress’s red carpet photos as her profile picture—this was catfishing at the college admissions level, and my resume had fallen victim. As someone who received acceptances from all 8 Ivy League universities, I suspected sooner or later students would try to model their college resumes after mine—but I never thought it would be so blatant or calculated.
I notified the outlets and they took down her articles. Later, she reached out to me and initially defended her actions. I was convinced she was a high school junior preparing for the college application process, so when I found out she was only a freshman, a burgeoning journalist writing for her school newspaper, I was shocked. How much pressure was she under to create a fake LinkedIn and 25-30 fake interview articles at the age of 14 for the sake of an application she would complete three years later? Did her parents know my name, and say to her, “You should be more like Cassandra” as Asian parents are oft to compare their kids? Did she justify her falsified resume and “proof” of her work over and over again to herself, that she actually believed she had done nothing morally wrong?
One thing was for sure: if I were a weary, exhausted, jaded college admissions officer who spent 8 minutes on her file, I would have no doubt accepted her to my top notch school. She seemed a perfect candidate for an elite university: her resume showed that she was more than qualified, and her work online established her as prolific. It’s scary who she could have went onto become: perhaps a journalist like Cooke, whose resume was inflated; a journalist like Glass, who was the executive editor at UPenn’s student newspaper, or his brother (the fake executive caller) who went to Stanford; or a journalist like Blair, who wrote over 600 articles. I had stumbled across a case that had combined both worlds: a breach of integrity in journalism for the sake of a college application.
Students know it’s ethically wrong to plagiarize, fabricate, and misrepresent themselves by copying off “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays”, adding non-existent awards, or inflating volunteer hours here and there. Yet, it’s one thing to know something; it’s another to let morality outweigh the benefits of getting into an Ivy League. Either way, it’s not worth it. Even if a student doesn’t get caught and manages to slip into the ranks of an elite school, he’ll be struggling with literal imposter syndrome (if the nation’s top achieving high school students already feel this way, how much more for someone who faked his resume?). He’ll feel like his actual work isn’t enough, and will be compelled to lie, cheat, and cut more corners to keep up the fictional reputation of himself. The cycle won’t ever end, even if all that effort is just to maintain his image. After all, The Washington Post reports that Cooke did not fabricate her story “to win a Pulitzer or make a big splash.” She simply wanted to give herself a better shot at the world. Instead, she ended up losing her voice and platform.
Cooke, Glass and Blair might represent the worst of the worst when it comes to a compromise of journalistic ethics; Wheeler and Maharaj may represent the extremes of fabrication on a college application. But with the accessibility of the Internet and the lack of whistle-blowing, self-proclaimed “journalists” and prospective college applicants have a voice to say whatever they want to make themselves look better. The seeds of America’s proclivity towards generating and accepting #fakenews could be sowed in something as commonplace as a college application. It’s up to us not only to call out dishonest journalism, but also to hold ourselves to the same standards—even if it simply means resisting the temptation to fudge our resumes.
Graphics Courtesy of Cassandra Hsiao, using Canvas.