How poverty in Africa drives cheating in America - a classic example of how not to tell any story.

5 August 2021,  Africa No Filter

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an explosion in online education — but it has also fuelled cheating. A report from the US news show CBS This Morning blames poverty and unemployment in Kenya for fraud in America. Contract cheating happens when a student gets a third party to produce their academic work.

According to the CBS investigation, college students in America are cheating to get degrees by paying other people to do their assignments. It’s nothing new, certainly not in America where ethics professor Dr David Rettinger has been “sounding the alarm for years”. Yet, the news report points to poverty and unemployment in Kenya as the biggest enablers of contract cheating.

Is it even a story set in Africa if it doesn’t feature poverty and despondent young people? The answer seems to be no, certainly not when the story is told for an American audience. And so, journalist Debora Patta stands in the middle of a nameless market in Nairobi, Kenya, to report on contract cheating in the U.S and how the growing popularity of online education has turned it into a billion-dollar global industry.

“And the heart of it is right here in Nairobi," Patta says, her hand gesturing for emphasis, “Often using top class Kenyan graduates who come from poverty like this.” Patta swoops her hands, so the viewer sees the poverty she is talking about: narrow streets, stalls and shops made from zinc, shoppers walking past them and sellers who are minding their goods - just a typical day in a typical market, then.

The story is vague on facts and big on sensationalising poverty, which the report says pushes Kenyan graduates into their role in contract cheating. William and Joanne are getting paid between $5 and $50 to help American students cheat. They are so good that clients often top marks due to William and Joanna’s academic prowess. But even their university degrees are told as a triumph against poverty, with the report stating that many Kenyans go hungry to pay for university education.

The report adds that the ever-elusive dreams of a better life in Kenya mean that contract cheating will remain a backup plan for unemployed graduates to earn a living because “with so many Kenyans living in dire poverty, there are plenty of graduates” to go around.

Contract cheating, according to the report, is thriving partly because it is easy for college students in America to cheat the system using online platforms that offer tutoring services. However, there is no further interrogation of why it’s so easy to cheat. American colleges are not interviewed or asked for comments, even after William reveals that a lecturer questioned one student’s 97% grade on a paper.

Instead, only Joanna and William are asked to account for contract cheating. They explain why they do it and show how easy it is to register on websites that writers and students use to find each other. When the cheating students are probed, it is not through direct conversations. Instead, the Kenyans speak on their behalf as well, keeping American students nameless, faceless, and voiceless even after William and Joanna reveal that they don’t just write assignments - they’re completing the students’ degrees.

One of William’s clients, for example, is using him to complete his master’s degree and has promised to retain him for his PhD. Colleges that are being cheated are also not asked for comment even though Joanna and William reveal that cheating students share their college login details with them to complete assignments and access libraries. Viewers are not told if any attempts were made to speak to colleges to find out what they are doing to combat contract cheating.

Their absence is glaring because, as the report says, contract cheating hasn’t just grown in popularity. It has exploded. The websites featured in the report were asked for comments, but they didn’t respond. Meanwhile, when asked to comment on contract cheating, “The U.S department of education says their regulations require that schools have processes in place to establish that any student who registers is the same student who engages in the program.”

Rettinger is the only American voice that speaks directly to contract cheating, but he is only interviewed towards the end of the report. He is an impartial observer who contextualises contract cheating in America, explaining, “the state of cheating in colleges is serious and getting more serious.” Even then, the most responsibility expected from the cheating students is trust. “You trust that your doctor has actually been to medical school,” he says.

Rettinger also touches on an outcome of contract cheating that could have been probed further by interviews with colleges and cheating students: what he calls a cadre of professionals who can’t do the work they claim that they can do. So, in the end, the global issue - contract cheating that’s pervasive in America - becomes a story about poverty and unemployment in Kenya.

The report deserves 10 out of 10 for poor storytelling that feeds a stereotypical narrative of Africa.