In quick review, I contend that journalists should credit their sources openly and transparently, even if those sources happen to be other journalists at competing news organizations.
How openly and transparently? That’s where Gomes raised several complicated scenarios in which credit legitimately could be in question (I’ll work through a few of those later in this column).
At a more fundamental level, though, I should begin with why this even matters to readers. Readers are the paying customers of journalism, even if that pay is only in non-monetized attention (social capital). Without readers (or listeners or viewers), there is no purpose for journalism and no reason to pursue it, because journalism exists to serve its audience.
Journalism cannot function properly as a commodity (anyone can do it; it’s all the same), and if readers value independence in journalism – which is an existential requirement of it – then they also must value proper sourcing (what is the source of the information provided, which distinguishes it.) But they should give proper credit to the source too, giving credit when credit is due, including a byline to the reporter who led the media-making effort.
Creating journalism is an expensive process, involving the time of the journalist, editor, and all support staff, plus facilities and equipment to produce it. Every story costs the organization creating it a certain amount of capital. So how would you feel if competing companies stole your hard work at the end of each day and took credit for it? What if they also repackaged that work and sold it as their own? How long would your business survive if that same scenario just kept happening over and over again, with no recourse?
Charley Memminger, a former Star-Bulletin columnist for 30 years, wrote about those “rip-offs” in a response to my first column, saying that “as a crime reporter I broke tons of stories with original reporting. Not just police beat stuff from the Cop Shop clipboard. My in-depth (articles) often were followed by other publications or TV news reports, and neither I nor the Star-Bulletin were given any credit. It was like I cut down the trees, pulled the weeds, trimmed the bushes, planted the flowers and then (another reporter) comes up with a water hose and takes the credit.”
While national news organizations routinely scoop up regional and local stories from other media companies (usually without giving credit) as a part of their ordinary workflow, that topic is for a different column. The focus here instead is on the local dynamic, where Hawaii journalists actively compete with each other for the attention of the same targeted audience.
Since I couldn’t find public policies on this matter on the websites from any media companies in the state, I asked editors and news directors at five of the largest, plus Civil Beat, if they have a policy and how such cases are handled within their organization.
Frank Bridgewater, vice president and editor of the Star-Advertiser, Kristina Lockwood, vice president and general manager of KHON, and Bill Dorman, vice president and news director of HPR, all did not reply by my deadline. (If they do later, I will add their responses in the comments section below.) Scott Humber of Hawaii News Now wrote back tersely: “I have no interest in commenting to you on this story. Our policy at Hawaii News Now on how we operate is internal to our operation.”
Mike Darrah, news director at KITV Island News, responded: “Our rule on crediting information is simple: if it’s not ours, and we can’t confirm it independently, credit the source.”
He added, “Our job, first and foremost, is to inform the public. If Island News breaks a story and other organizations pick up on it, we’ve done our job, and then some! Recent example: Island News got the ball rolling on the monster homes issue, (and) now it’s everywhere. We know we won’t get credit for it, but it’s rewarding to see the work we started expand beyond our own reach.”
Civil Beat’s editor and general manager, Patti Epler, wrote “Our practice is to credit other news organizations not only when they are the first to report something of significance but whenever we cite their material. We do this not only through attribution in our story but also by linking prominently to their story or website or whatever the most direct reference is.”
In Darrah’s and Epler’s comments, consistent themes connect the practice to straightforward common sense and industry ethics, such as those articulated in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. That code also refers to Reuters’ policy on “pickups,” which states: “Pickups must name the source, whether a newspaper, web site, broadcaster or news agency, even when it is a Reuters competitor.”
All of which seems fairly straightforward. Gomes, though, brought up a variety of cases that complicate matters for the practicing journalist, and posed related questions, along these lines:
A community source calls to complain about an ongoing issue, which, upon further research by the journalist who was called, was covered a year ago by a competitor. Does the competitor now (or still) own the story and deserve recognition?
A reporter attends a public meeting with other reporters. One of the other reporters publishes first online. Does that media source now own the story (and everyone else has to credit)?
A reporter gets a press release about an escaped mental patient; that veteran reporter knows a rich backstory about that patient, from reportage years ago. All of the other reporters miss it. So after Reporter A publishes, do all of the rest need to refer to that work to bring up the story, or can they go back and dig out the details independently and take over ownership of their version?
If a reporter is doing background research and finds in a competitor’s work that the subject of a story has a criminal background, and the reporter confirms it, through public documents, can then that be used without a reference to the original report?
The Marco Polo building catches fire. No one dies. But one journalist happens to be nearby, sees it and quickly puts a story online, triggering a rush of coverage. Soon, flames can be seen bursting out of the building for miles. Does that first reporter deserve a mention in other media channels for the day, for hours, for weeks? At all?
Most of those complexities raised seem to me to be about what is – or is not – in the public domain, and how long does it take (or what process does it take) for a piece of information to become in the public domain, where it is open game for all journalists to use without restriction?
While we could debate endlessly other particulars of any situation, at some point the question has to return to whether it is right or wrong to take this information without credit. The SPJ Code of Ethics offers guidance. You could apply the Golden Rule.
But maybe a quicker way to get to the answer is simply to think about: What did you do to get this story? Did you do good journalistic work and make your own distinct version of it, crediting the people who deserve credit? Or are you standing there with the water hose, basking in the glow of someone else’s earnest effort?
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Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.