Plagiarism in the Midst of Chaos

msnbc-logoThe tale of U.S. Airways flight 1549 gripped the world yesterday. A plane, crippled in mid-air, made a safe landing in the middle of the Hudson River. A potential catastrophe ended with no deaths and no serious injuries.

Like most breaking news stories coverage of it was widespread and constant. However, this story was somewhat unique in that the first images and reports came not via the major news outlets or even regular blogs, but over Twitter and TwitPic.

Specifically, it was Janis Krumswho uploaded the first images. He was a passenger on a nearby ferry that responded to the downed plane and snapped photos of the incident as the boat raced to rescue passengers.

But as the story began to spread, it seemed that the fog of war began take over. Though it was well-known Krums was the photographer, it appeared at least once on MSNBC under a different attribution. This angered many supporters of citizen journalism and caused an uproar on Flickr.

However, it it appears that the mistake was an innocent one. Though it is unclear if MSNBC corrected the attribution on their site, they did perform at least one interview with Krums and identified him as the photographer on the air. It appears that the mis-attribution on the site was an accident.

Sadly though, during a crisis, mistakes are a part of journalism. Even the best sources get facts wrong, misspeak, are at times unclear and draw wrong conclusions. Though the better journalists and news organizations work to minimize these mistakes, they are inevitable.

Though we can take steps to mitigate and prevent such errors, they can not be completely avoided. To prevent these types of problems moving forward, it is going to take a concerted effort from a lot of different groups to ensure that citizen journalists always get their due.

Fixing the Problem

The problem itself is pretty straight forward. When a news organization is trying to cover a breaking story over television, radio and the Web, as many modern companies do, it is chaos trying to get all of the facts together. The main goal of the reporter is to find out the facts of the case and report on them. Obviously there is a strong importance of correctly citing sources, but it is more important to make sure that you have the facts right, especially when you are dealing with life and death situations.

If you’ve spent time in a news room, you know well how chaotic it can be. It is easy to see how attribution could be lost and, in the case of MSNBC, I feel certain that photo credit of “MSNBC TV” is just a default credit applied to all unattributed images.

Was it sloppy reporting? Yes. Should MSNBC have done better? Yes. But was it an honest mistake made in the midst of a very chaotic day? Yes.

Fixing this problem is not going to be easy and it is and it is going to come up repeatedly as mainstream media outlets lean more on user-generated content. Preventing these types of mistakes will require both media outlets making an even more concerted effort to attribute everything correctly and users making a stronger push to mark their work.

However, the technology is working against this. The most immediate means of getting such images out are largely personal and anonymous. Twitter and TwitPic, for example, can be traced back to a username but how much information that gleans is up to the user. Also, cell phone cameras typically do not embed the needed EXIF data to identify the photographer and most do not have the ability to set such information, unlike with traditional digital cameras.

It is entirely possible that a user could snap a photo of an important event, shoot it out over Twitter, be the first to report something and have no one know who they are. Though that wasn’t what happened in this case, Krums’ name was known and widely-reported on, these new technologies clearly add new challenges to mainstream media when it comes to identifying sources of information.

How citizen journalists and mainstream media overcome these challenges will remain to be seen, but it is clear from this story that there are at least a few snags in the line.

Best Steps

Right now, there isn’t a lot that can be done to prevent these kinds of incidents, at least not from the viewpoint of a potential citizen journalist.

That being said, I would definitely take the following steps if you think you might ever catch an image CNN could want:

  1. If possible add your name and information to the EXIF data of your camera. Make sure it is embedded in every image.
  2. Be sure that your name and contact information are on every site you post your work.
  3. When uploading an image or video, provide all of the information that you can, including location, tags, etc.
  4. Try not to submit a file to too many places at once. Doing so can cause confusion as to where the source and doesn’t appear to greatly speed up how fast it is seen.
  5. If you see a mis-attribution, try to correct request a correction as soon as possible. The problem is that one mistake leads to a dozen as others pick up the story.

These are basic tips but they are also things that most would-be citizen journalists are not in the habit of doing. If you one gets in the habit now, then they will be prepared when and if something major does happen and they get that prized image or video.


The good news in all of this is that Krums does not seem to have suffered any ill effects from this mistake. The overwhelming majority of mentions have been correctly attributed and he is widely known as the photographer. He’s given interviews on MSNBC and NBC, both of which identify him as such and most of the mentions on the Web have included his name.

Despite the mistake, Krums is getting his due credit.

In the end, it is clear that MSNBC made an error. The company and its Web team should have done better. However, throwing around blame for an obvious accident doesn’t make any sense. There is a much bigger issue about how to properly attribute citizen media going forward. This is something outside of the normal mainstream journalism paradigm and the policies they have for tracking ownership and providing credit do not neatly apply in many cases.

Solving this issue is going to take an effort by citizen journalists, news organizations and even the hardware and communications companies that help people get news and information out.

We have tools that let us capture images and video from any news story and instantly beam it out to millions of people, however, we now need to make sure those tools come with the same protections that ensure such use is attributed correctly.

After all, if we don’t know who is behind a story, not only only do we not know who to thank for getting the news out there, but we don’t know if we can trust what is being reported.

Hat Tip: Melanie Phung

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