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May 8, 2013

Daft punk'd: university tasks students with planting fake stories

Sydney University tasked students with planting stories in rival student paper Tharunka as part of an assignment, leaving students outraged.


The University of Sydney has been accused of encouraging unethical behaviour by issuing students an assignment to plant fake articles in the University of NSW’s student newspaper Tharunka.

The group assignment — titled “Prank Tharunka” — was given to undergraduate students in the Media Politics subject, run by the Department of Government and International Relations. The assignment requires students to “design and execute a false story that you attempt to get published in the UNSW student newspaper” and is worth 25% of their final grade.

Joshua Tassell, one of the students given the task this semester, told Crikey he believed the assignment was “utterly immoral”: “For someone who’d one day want to go into journalism I have a major ethical problem with trying to print lies. I don’t see the point. I honestly don’t think it taught us much at all except terrible habits.”

Tassell says he is “completely mystified” how the assignment, due to be handed in on May 16, was approved by the University of Sydney. He also queries why Tharunka had been targeted, rather than, say, the University of Sydney’s student publication Honi Soit.

The University of Sydney’s academic dishonesty policy — reproduced in the Media Politics subject outline — states:

“The University requires students to act honestly, ethically and with integrity in their dealings with the University, its members, members of the public and others.”

Lily Ray, one of Tharunka‘s editors, describes the assignment as “mean-spirited” and “immature”. “I think it’s really irresponsible — especially as many students in that class may want to be journalists in the future and this would be on file,” she said. “We’re a newspaper that doesn’t have a lot of resources. It’s frustrating and it’s taken up a lot of time.”

Ray says she became suspicious when the paper — which publishes occasional pieces by non-UNSW students — received an unusually high number of unsolicited pieces. University of Sydney students, uncomfortable about the assignment, then tipped her off about the prank.

While some of the prank pitches weren’t up to publication standard — including one on how to make your own rainbow crossing — Tharunka had planned to run a phony story on fare evasion and was considering another on s-xual harassment at universities.

“Luckily we caught it in time, but it could have been humiliating for us,” Ray said.

University of Sydney lecturer Peter Chen, who co-ordinates the Media Politics subject, told Crikey he saw no problem with the assignment.

“It is a practical, research-oriented task with a sound pedagogic basis,” he said. “Students aren’t being encouraged to be deceptive — they’re encouraged to analyse the techniques of public relations that are endemic in our society.”

Another group was tasked with exploring the issue of “clicktivism” by creating an online campaign for a fictitious cause. Chen says such assignments offer students a refreshing change to dry academic essays and show universities can be grounded in the real world. He adds he did not expect his students to succeed in getting the fake articles into print.

“This is not a dangerous activity — we’re not cutting people’s organs out of their stomachs,” he said. “Most of the assignments set by my academic colleagues may be dead boring … That’s the only interesting thing about [this task].”


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20 thoughts on “Daft punk’d: university tasks students with planting fake stories

  1. Myriam Robin

    This is extraordinary. Clearly the lecturer thinks targeting student media is harmless, but student editors do their best to be respectable journalists with little expertise and fewer resources. To undermine their work like this just to teach an assignment is pretty callous. The fact that it was a rival university is particularly dodgy.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with Myriam Robin.

    Since the lecturer in charge doesn’t understand the problem hopefully his head of school will and invite the lecturer to reflect on his practice.

  3. Andybob

    The problem starts with the subject name – “Media Politics”. Not “Journalism”, not “Publishing”, not even “Rhetoric”. If all you teach is “how” then questions about “why” are literally unexamined.

  4. Andrew McIntosh

    It is, at least, gratifying that there are media students with a strong and simple sense of ethics. Dare one hope for the future?

  5. Roberto Tedesco

    Today’s media students refusing to buy into “lecturer’s” how-to-troll schtick. Good for them.

  6. robinw

    One can only hope those ethical students won’t be penalised by a humiliated lecturer. My money says they probably will be. This should be followed up to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

  7. Darren Gilchrist

    I’ll play devil’s advocate here.

    Could it be seen as a good thing that we educate journalism students, in this case through a practical exercise (often more keenly remembered), exactly how false information or PR can be injected in to a news organisation through loopholes?

    Through that learning, they might in future avoid the same downfall? Particularly when they too become unwary editors?

  8. Renee Griffin

    As one of the editors of Tharunka, my response to Darren would be that if that were the case, why target such a small student publication?
    We are all students who are running Tharunka for experience, why single us out?

    With that reasoning, for the purposes of student learning outcomes, wouldn’t it have been more fruitful to make students target the multitude of organisations that are better resourced and deal more extensively with said PR injecting?

    Not that I agree with Peter Chen’s unethical practices in any context, but the reasoning for targeting us (Tharunka) also should be examined.

  9. David Dunn


    I strongly disagree and resent that you automatically categorise ‘false information’ with PR – much that same as this lecturer from USYD encourages students to “analyse the techniques of public relations that are endemic in our society.”

    This assessment is both concerning for the practice of PR and Journalism. I’m conscious that these criticisms of PR exist because there are those who deliberately mislead and lie to the public, as there are unethical (as above) Journalists, corrupt Policeman and pedophile Priests – there are always bad eggs in every walk of life. But to categorise the entire profession or professionals is wrong.

    PR like Journalism is to tell a story – in the case of PR it is to tell the story of their client or whom ever they represent. Much the same as someone wishes to express their point of view on this thread, agents also want their voices heard concerning issues in the news. Providing news or information to support a point of view does not mean lying, in fact if a PR agency was to lie or deceive the public and the public found out (which with the internet and current news cycle is easy) then this in turn is bad PR and counter-productive to the fundamental goal – to get ones voice heard.

    Overall, this assessment and view by the teaching staff at USYD is very concerning for the future of the media and communication sector in general.

  10. Darren Gilchrist

    Hi Renee – I understand. A misdirected target and mean spirited approach by the lecturer IMHO.

    I still stand by my premise that the exercise was a good idea conceptually.

    Coming from WA originally, I don’t know the University student publication culture here in NSW. Has Tharunka ever published deliberately false stories ‘for a bit of fun/satirical humour’? I certainly recollect those types of articles in our local Uni gazettes.

    Hence, I wonder if the concern about “unethical practice” is more related to being punked (or in the Crikey’s case, or any other publication for that matter, the potential to be so) — rather than appreciating the value of the exercise itself?

    …or for the students who were concerned like Joshua, to dig a little deeper – and to realise that perhaps the purpose was not to teach them HOW to do it (or to condone it), but rather how to detect and avoid it during their careers. It certainly seems that in the new MSM-world-order that puff pieces get taken from PR firms and published almost verbatim. Media Watch attests to that.

  11. Alex Don

    Did anyone think that this article is a clever interpretation of the assignment and that ‘Joshua Tassell’ just got a high distinction by getting this bogus story about assignment ethics published on this website?

  12. Pusscat

    My, the traditional SU sport of UNSW-baiting has obviously prpgressed way past the “Kensington Tech” name-calling style that was in vogue last time I looked!
    But some fine academic traditions are unchanged: I’m awed by the sheer skill (count the syllables!) with which that Senior Lecturer can slide past calling outright lying a shovel.

  13. Renee Griffin

    Given that Peter Chen has now admitted it was ‘a bad idea’, http://goo.gl/ajMrF, I think there’s pretty large consensus that it was indeed unethical, which could also be deemed such as it’s forcing students to break the Journalistic Code of Ethics. Keeping a conceptually ‘good’ idea purely conceptual would have been more appropriate.

    Whilst Tharunka has published false articles, they’re mostly confined to one day a year (Foundation Day), we make it obvious that the pieces aren’t true and certainly never direct such pieces toward entirely unrelated and innocent bodies.

    I can’t speak for the University of Sydney, but acting with honesty and integrity is enforced in other universities with strict ramifications for students who are found to be in violation of this.

    Just a side note, we weren’t actually successfully ‘punked’ and have never taken a single piece from a PR firm. Being an expert in the field, Chen would have been aware that we’re a university student newspaper, PR firms don’t bother with us! (further negating the legitimacy of Chen’s decision to choose Tharunka).

    All this to say, in an industry where we are currently ranked as one of the lowest professions in terms of public trust, this type of behaviour certainly doesn’t help our cause.

  14. Joel

    Good to see universities are preparing students to enter the real world!

    No, but seriously, that’s terrible.

  15. andrew hendry

    @Alex Don – good call!

    Apart from the valid ethical debate Chen’s dubious task has aroused, the fact he’s labelled USyd’s comms program as “dead boring” might ruffle a few feathers.

    Don’t think he’ll be on the enrollment committee next semester!

  16. Justin Pen

    Two (brief) cents on the matter.

    1) The course taught by Peter Chen “Media Politics” is not practically invested in training journalists or creating the reporters of tomorrow: it’s not even a MECO (Media and Communications) course. It’s run by the Department of Government and International Relations and its object is to teach students about the media landscape. I doubt even the most stalwart believers in the Fourth Estate can honestly suggest that MSM newspapers (and student newspapers, for that matter) don’t push agendas; or pander to their audiences; or desire relevance and an active readership in an increasingly busy world.

    And that’s the point of the “prank”.

    2) From my knowledge, Peter Chen’s decision was not motivated out of malice or out of some long-held, deep-seated antipathy towards UNSW or Tharunka. The purpose of the assignment seems, essentially, to emulate something like this, an example of the MSM picking up a phony story: http://tharunka.arc.unsw.edu.au/monorail-hoax-catches-students-media-2/

    Similar to the red herrings missed by the mX, the ostensibly ‘obvious’ plants were deployed to raise flags for Tharunka’s editors. The fact this is penetrating broader audiences further proves modern media’s penchant for controversy. Really, the entire affair reminds me of any one of the pranks that The Chasers pulled during their ‘War on Everything’. A prescient, satirical truth planted in a fairly crude joke.

  17. Sean

    Justin, see your point, but targeting a student paper with limited resources is pretty weak. If it’s as you say, why not target a resourced media group? If it got up, you get an HD, if it failed to get through, you could write up what you did and speculate as to why no one bought it.

  18. Pusscat

    OK Justin, fair enough. As one of the participants in the fracas, I have been Duly Chastised.
    But in characterising this thread only as an MSM-style overreaction based on ignorance of the fuller context (which, by the way, I thank you for providing) I think you have have missed a more crucial aspect of what we are all doing here.
    The comments may be explicit, or oblique, or opaque (in accordance with stylistic preference) but they are all expressions of the ubiquitous frustation of being a powerless indivdual trying to hold out somehow against the VASTLY superior forces of MSM.
    So far, I’ve identified two options for myself: vent my spleen on a relatively safe-environment website like this one about, for example, a teacup storm like this one; or give up and drink Kool-Aid.
    A Third Way to deal with my own feelings? There probably is one, but just now, I haven’t found it yet.

    Just so you know…..

  19. Justin Pen

    Hey Sean. Look, I get were you’re coming from and I tend agree. But to condemn the entire message because of the medium is unfair, I think. What’s further missing from Crikey’s/Tharunka’s account is that “Prank Tharunka” was one of six assessment options. Another was to research the kind of calls that get selected by morning talk-back hosts and attempt to ‘prank’ morning radio by tailoring a specific (phony) call-in. To answer, ‘Why Tharunka?’ I’d have to again suggest it wasn’t meant to malign or victimise the UNSW paper. It was a fairly harmless prank between two rival universities – is that really newsworthy in itself?
    Pusscat. I almost never get involved in comment threads because of what you just said: it feels somewhat frustrating and doesn’t seem to achieve much. But I think it’s even less productive to attack a media critic, who was himself, critiquing how the media is currently run. I’m much more inclined to cathartically tweet my frustrations, frankly.

  20. Gavin Moodie

    The Australian reports that Chen has apologised and withdrawn the assignment. It further reports that the dean counselled Chen.

    The report is by Kylar Loussikian titled ‘Prank lecturer says sorry for unethical assignment’ and was published on 16 May.


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