Steal This Prose

A good student plagiarized five stories and forged a letter

Nazish Ahmad seemed a journalism wünderkind. Two years ago, at the tender age of 16, the pretty, smart, South Plantation High School student wrote a front-page story for the Miami Herald. She won coveted internships at South Florida's two largest newspapers, the Herald and the Sun-Sentinel. And she recently took top scholastic honors, both nationally and in Florida, for her columns.

Then came the capper: On May 3, she was awarded a Silver Knight in journalism by the Herald, the top honors for a school-age reporter in Broward County. Every high school in the county submits an entry. Hers was best -- so she took home a plane ticket to anywhere in the United States or Central America as well as $1,500.

Last month, the whole thing came crashing down. It turned out that Ahmad, whom I couldn't reach despite repeated attempts, had forged a recommendation letter to win the Silver Knight and that she had plagiarized at least one daily newspaper story and improperly lifted material from four others. The Herald rescinded her award, and the Sentinel announced a probe of her deception. The declarations were made quietly on the dailies' back pages.

Mark Poutenis

"She's a kid," says Dave Wilson, Herald managing editor for sports and Broward news. "I feel badly for the circumstances that brought this about, but everyone has learned from it."

The woman who began unraveling the lies, Luz Sementilli, is still upset, both about Ahmad's fabrications and about the daily newspapers' coverage of them. Sementilli is a commissioner of the Plantation Athletic League and director of the Dynamites, a program that serves about 200 mentally or physically challenged kids. Ahmad, by all accounts, wrote a missive as part of her Silver Knight entry saying she had organized talent shows, dances, and a birthday bash for the Dynamites, then signed Sementilli's name.

"This girl... took advantage of the special population by writing a letter of lies about what she had done with them," Sementilli comments. "She managed to convince people at these big newspapers of things that she had done that were totally untrue. Our parents are very upset. And the papers hushed it up."

The story of how it all happened provides a glimpse of how two of the nation's most competitive newspapers can work together if need be -- and more important, how the increasing pressure on youngsters to do an adult job can damage newspapers' reputations and the kids themselves.

Ahmad, by all accounts, is a wonderful human being despite what happened. She volunteered many hours at the West Regional Library in Plantation. And she is, apparently, a good student, having made the honor roll and become editor of her high school newspaper, the Sword and Shield.

In summer 2003, when she was just 16 years old, she won a grant from a foundation started in the name of Broward journalism teacher Alyce Culpepper -- and overseen by members of the local media and others -- to study at a local college. Then she garnered a short internship at the Herald, where on July 11, 2003, she wrote a page 1A story about a Broward School District website on which parents could check their kids' attendance. It boasted, ironically, considering what would follow, one of those terse Herald lead sentences: "Broward School schoolkids, Big Mother is watching."

The next summer, Ahmad was one of eight high schoolers chosen for a Sentinel internship. She wrote about a dozen stories for the paper, many of them about high school kids. They're the kind that parents breeze over to see if their child is mentioned, with headlines like "Sum Pressure: The Tension Adds Up as Students Vie at Mathcounts Contest." Indeed, she was the star of a promotional video that the Sentinel produced about the program. On it, Sentinel staffer Henry Fitzgerald boasted of the interns: "They're gonna write like a professional." The kicker was provided by Ahmad: "I feel so lucky that I'm here because this only happens once in a lifetime."

This past March, she went to South Carolina for a convention, where her newspaper was named the best in the South. The Sentinel published a picture of her and other kid reporters in front of the State Capitol in Columbia. And she took a 2005 Gold Circle Award for a newspaper column on teen drug testing from the Columbia Scholastic Press. She was also named All Florida in a contest sponsored by the Florida Scholastic Press Association.

Wow! At 18 years old, she was competing in national contests, winning fellowships, and working "like a professional" at local papers with national reputations. That is pressure. Not the kind that any kid had to deal with a generation ago.

All of that superachievement led to Ahmad's Silver Knight award. The Herald's Wilson explained that the winners of that contest are chosen by a committee made up of one Herald employee and two people from the community. It's been given in Broward since 1984 and in Miami since 1959.

The day after the May 2 ceremony, Herald staffer Evan Benn wrote a story terming the 15 Broward winners "an impressive bunch" who "blushed and bawled as they accepted their statuettes at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts."

Soon after writing the piece, Benn spoke with Sementilli. "I told her 'congrats' on one of your volunteers winning the award," Benn said. "She was confounded." Adds Sementilli: "He sent me the name by e-mail and I was like what... I called Evan when I realized what happened, and I said this is very screwed up."

The Herald, according to Wilson, assigned Broward Assistant City Editor Linda Streitfeld to investigate. Ironically, she is on the board of the foundation that had given Ahmad the Culpepper fellowship. She and Benn turned up the forged letter. Streitfeld called Sementilli, the Dynamites director says. "It was an intimidating call... She said, 'You could be sued for slander.' That made me angry. I said wait a minute... she's threatening me, and I'm telling the truth."

Streitfeld denies threatening slander but acknowledges that she cautioned Sementilli not to talk about Ahmad "in an accusatory way." After several days of investigation, she says, the Herald determined that Ahmad had "defrauded the program."

Then a weird coincidence occurred. On May 18, the Herald published a story announcing that a new Silver Knight winner had been named and only in the ninth paragraph mentioning that Ahmad's award had been rescinded. Sementilli's complaints were edited out, Wilson explains, "to not make a big deal of it."

The same day, May 18, a story appeared under Ahmad's byline titled "Their Hearts Are in Haiti" about a high school group aiding Haitians. At least six long sections were stolen almost verbatim from a March 7 Herald story by... Evan Benn. "We're not in the business of bringing down little girls, but something had to be done," Benn says. "Why would she have to do this? A culture of pressure and overachievement maybe."

Benn told Herald Managing Editor Wilson, who phoned Sentinel Managing Editor Sharon Rosenhaus. "I felt I had to make the call," Wilson comments, "especially given the concerns that we have in the industry these days [about plagiarism]. We all share the responsibility." Rosenhaus immediately took action, he says, and the next day, the Sentinel published a note to readers stating that "Sun-Sentinel policy clearly prohibits the use of material from other sources without attribution."

Ten days later, on May 29, the Sentinel published another correction noting that a high school contributor had pilfered material improperly in five of the ten stories she had written. "The freelance contributor no longer writes for the Sentinel," the note concluded.

Then, Sentinel Executive Editor Earl Maucker penned a June 6 column noting that the paper employs 120 students "at any given time" and that it plans to continue doing so. Again, he didn't mention Ahmad.

"I was very happy with their response," Wilson says of the Sentinel's finding.

I'm not -- or more accurately, I'm dissatisfied with the conclusion that readers are likely to draw from reading the daily newspapers' responses to the mess. Two things are clear to me after digging through Nazish Ahmad's record: (1) The young woman was pushed too hard, too early, and wasn't given sufficient instruction, and (2) though she's largely to blame for this morass, she has probably learned her lesson.

Daily newspapers have become so desperate to attract young readers these days that they have sent the kids to the front lines too early. And journalism instructors, eager to involve kids in the trade, have created a culture of awards and fellowships that is too intense, even for seemingly smart, mature kids like Ahmad. Childhood only happens "once in a lifetime," to use Ahmad's phrase from the Sentinel video. Do we need to transform our kids into adults so early?

"I experienced a tug of war in my heart over this," Sementilli says. "Here is somebody who went too far because she needed it and because others encouraged it. But at the same time, it is someone who crossed too many boundaries to get what she wanted."

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