They Call it the "Red Paper"

I'm faced with a dilemma.

I've written about my experience as English editor at the university newspaper. During my short time in this position I've run a gamut of emotions - from anger to stress to apathy. As hopeless as I feel this newspaper is with its government influenced content, I still feel some ethical pull to do right by it.

Last week, I was editing a story and found out that one of the reporters had stolen part of an article from the newsletter I published and put it under his own byline. This didn't exactly surprise me, as I had already guessed plagiarism was a common practice among these reporters. When one sentence reads like the author shuffled the words and dealt them out in a random order and then next boasts a stronger vocabulary and grammatical style than my own, you can tell something fishy is going on.

Well, I had given the reporter my editing comments and asked him to rewrite the article using his own words, but when I saw the printed version just as I had written it in my newsletter, I knew it was time to voice my concerns. Yes, I'm just the "English editor" in their eyes, and as much as I try for my own sanity to keep from shrouding their articles with comments on the depth (or lack thereof) of content, I have an ethical duty to the profession.


Now, I'm not the best with confrontation. I turn splotchy. I sweat a lot. My voice gets louder and quivers a bit. It's even harder when as a 23-year-old foreigner I have to have this kind of discussion with a boss of sorts who is twice my age. But I had to suck it up.


So I talked with the managing editor about my concerns. About how using other people's work and calling your own is not only unethical and unprofessional but can lead to all sorts of legal debacles.

Of course I'm met with all the usual excuses. "Oh, our staff is so small." "We just want to sleep at night."

I try to explain these practices will only hurt them in the long run, whether another paper or reporter sues them for plagiarism or an editor refuses to hire them because their work obviously isn't their own.

Well, the managing editor came to the conclusion that I'm the English editor and just that. He's going to continue on with his practices. Sleep well at night. Do his best to smile at work. Claim ignorance when called out on the subject again.

This, I'm learning, is the Cambodian way.

So here lies my dilemma. I'm working for a paper that no one reads. The editors are using me for my English fluency, not giving a darn about my reporting sense. I'm only going to be working here a few more months. If I want, I can really slack off on this job. Of course, my conscience would never let me do such a thing, but really, where does my duty lie?

Do I simply continue on as the English editor and turn an ignorant eye to all the other horrible practices taking place at the paper? Should I continue to raise these ethical issues and try to insist on professional reporting practices, even if it makes me look like the crazy foreign know-it-all? At what point do I drop my title as a temporary hired help and voice my opinions on important issues? Throw in that cross-cultural context and you can understand the muddled mess I find myself in.


I'm not sure if I'll figure out my exact role here before I leave. I'm not even sure if solutions to these sorts of problems are ever truly realized.

I will take this opportunity to open this up as a forum for discussion. Those of you in communications fields (and even those who aren't), what would you do in this sort of situation? Have you ever faced a similar problem?


.tina. said...

I've been reading your blog for a few weeks now. I can empathize with your plight completely. I am a natural-born citizen to Cambodian refugees. My parents are the golden story of rags to riches (riches in the loosest of terms) and they too are flummoxed by the Cambodian way. More often than naught, is ethics a challenge to comprehend to people who were born in a country without civility and values of ethics for a long time now.

There is no magical solution. I commend your efforts to triumph over their tragedy. The Cambodian people, socially, are stuck in a mindset. Even those who are able to emigrate to the US find the challenge in assimilating to "society" or polite society in that case. The cycle continues to perpetuate from death until birth. I wish there was some way to overcome their stubborn tenacity and I can see that being familiar with the culture. We visited in 2007, and it broke my heart. My mom made me realize that although these are her people and her country that she thinks outside of that box and encourages me to do the same. It is by fluke that I have forward-thinking parents and for that alone am I a truly blessed Cambodian.

KBrock said...

Wow, this is quite the dilemma.

On the one hand, I can see just forgetting about the content and do the best you can with the job you were assigned to do. It would be easier all around, you'd still be helping the newspaper, and you'd be fulfilling your obligations. I really don't know how plagiarism is looked upon in foreign cultures...maybe it's more accepted.

On the other hand, for Americans, plagiarism is never the answer and is just plain lazy. It sounds like this writer should be fired and someone with more morals and work ethic should take his place. It's likely no one reads the paper because such bad practices have been in place for so long.

In my opinion, choose your battles. Start with a small problem, and work on that. Don't try to tackle the whole set-up of the organization. Maybe work with one writer on his investigative tactics. Take him out with you in the field and show him how you would plan and then write the story. Once you solve a small problem and get that on track, you can tackle another. It may not be huge change right away, but it'll be a start.

Whatever you do, you obviously care about the newspaper or you wouldn't get upset about it. By showing concern, maybe the other people working there will care a little more and make it a better paper.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

hi rachael! thanks for replying. but that is my dead blog from last year! eeek. that picture is from banteay srei. i hope you will follow me on wordpress!


Branden said...

The mentality of work has always seemed to appear to me that the common employee has to bend over for their boss even if it means doing whatever it takes to get the job done. I have had to make my boss look good in several occasions at my expense. I don't agree with it and its rough, but in the end he appreciates it and somewhat stands up for me at other moments. Politics in work just plain rub me the wrong way because I don't play games, but I am learning to do just that as I mature in the work force. I am sure the culture there is quite different too, so does your ethical mindset go out the window? Good question! It is up to you and your situation...I personally would take it in the rear over getting fired here in the states over small time ethics. If it effects me or the law, of course I have to leave a paperwork trail bringing it up to someone. I recommend leaving that trail with all your thoughts and making it worth it to you, mentally or physically giving that peace in your mind. Certainly don't expect you can change things over there or anywhere...but keep trying and it is rewarding when we can make a difference.

alison said...

I know from my own cambodian experiences how challenging these situations can be, so I want to commend you for talking to the editor. Even though it didn't have the outcome you wanted, you still did what was appropriate. It is ulimately his concern and you did bring it to his attention.

So maybe you feel like you didn't accomplish anything, but you did, even if just for your own character.

And it's also possible that the editor couldn't agree with you in the meeting without losing face. But now that he's aware of the problems, there may be some slow changes in the way things are run, just don't expect any credit!

Na said...

Dear Rachael, I've read your blog for some time now and I enjoy reading it because of the experience you share.

I am Cambodian, born and raised in France (so with a "French mindset), but I rapidly adapted to the Cambodian way as you put it.
I am also editor-in-chief of a magazine in English in Phnom Penh, and I do understand and sympathize with you! All the more so that I sometimes read the university newspaper when I receive it and that I know some people who worked for it.

Knowing a bit of what is going on with the management of the paper, I recommend you not to stress yourself over such problem.
I commend you for being keen on contributing and trying to improve the newspaper. But I think that such problem won't change, especially since the editor doesn't seem to understand it.
Both experienced and new Cambodian journalists who have loose journalistic ethics will understand they'll have to change when they'll be either told off by their (foreign) boss, or when their job applications to renowned publications are turned down.

When one of my journalists submitted a piece he just compiled word for word from another newspaper, I just told him "I can't accept that paper because you copied it from this paper." It's not that he copied from the other piece with malevolent purposes, but it's because he ran out of time and took this shortcut.
I'm his boss, so it's easy for me to explain and warn him. But in your case, you don't have managerial authority over them. So I think you'll be the one who'll suffer the most if you try to uphold your ethics.

Don't bother with the newspaper, instead do your best with the university bulletin. And for legal matters, it's usually settled before it goes to a court. The media community is small, so people knows each other and they don't really want to be tagged as the "suing guy".

In the meantime I wish you the best in your job!