Journalism, Plagiarism and Attribution

Journalism Logo ImageA recent article on the British site highlighted an increasingly common story where a student journalist produced an article only to have it “lifted” by a journalist writing for a national publication.

However, it wasn’t a case of plagiarism, at least not in the traditional sense. The journalist double-checked the facts, did his own legwork, got new quotes for the story and created an entirely new story using the student’s as the inspiration. Still, the student involved said that they should have been at least credited as the source of the article and possibly receive compensation.

But according to freelancer Phillip Dolby, the student’s expectations should have been more muted. He said, “The reality is, news is an eco-system. Bigger papers up the food chain feed off those further down it – that’s just the nature of the industry. The BBC is known to get a significant proportion of its news material from local and regional print media, anyway. Should student journalists and others be heckling broadcasters for payment, too?”

(Note: I received a request from Dolby that I make it clear that he is NOT the journalist who picked up and rewrote the story in question in question, just someone who had written about the story.)

However, others disagreed with Dolby, including journalist Adam Westbrook who said, “If students are finding their work ‘poached’ by the mainstream media, they face a similar dilemma to many photographers who find images from their Flickr pages splashed over newspapers without permission. I do find that behaviour particularly deplorable – it isn’t hard for picture editors to email the owner of the image and ask for permission, and I think in some instances, we should pursue those claims, if anything, in the name of defending copyright.”

This kind of practice seems to straddle a delicate line. It isn’t copyright infringement, making Westbook’s suggestion meaningless in this case, and it even stretches the definition of plagiarism since no words were lifted and only the larger idea was copied, something that in most cases could have been independently crafted. Since journalists have based their reports on previous reports for as long as journalism has existed, it’s hard to nail down exactly what is different about this case, beyond that it was a unique story that only had one source.

For me though, the issue of whether this is copyright infringement or even plagiarism is a moot one. Journalists, when basing new work on the earlier reports of others, have a duty to report where their information came from. There are three non-plagiarism reasons for it:

  1. Benefit to Readers: Readers who are interested in the story will want to visit other relevant stories. Withholding that information is a disservice to the reader, usually done to make the latter journalist seem like a more definitive source.
  2. Nurtures the Ecosystem: Dolby’s “ecosystem” argument may have some merit, but without a symbiosis there won’t be an ecosystem for long. If those at the “bottom” aren’t adequately rewarded with reader attention, they won’t be around to feed those higher up.
  3. Puts Focus Back on Original Content: Though there’s no shame in using information from previous reports, journalists need to focus on what they can add to the news. By acknowledging what came before, the focus is put back on what’s new.

Basically, journalism, like all crafts, needs to reward those who put in the work and those who create something new. Those who gather information, write original reports and find unique stories need to be rewarded for the craft to move forward. If everyone is content in coming in second, there will be no one going first.

Of course, there’s a lot of gray area here, especially when you start talking about things that are widely reported and it’s hard to tell where the information first came from, but in situations like this where a report clearly came from an earlier story, there’s a need for good attribution.

In short, if attribution can be done, it should be done. It’s not only the right thing to do, but the best for journalism in general.

However, I want to hear what others have to say about this particular problem. What role do journalists have in attributing prior reports? Should the student have been attributed in this case (based on what little is known)? I think there’s a lot of room for discussion here and it’s an important talk to have.

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