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How much is too much? Defining the grey areas in attribution and linking

As the mainstream media shifts to writing more online content, its standards and guidelines are up for discussion. Just how much of other people’s work on external sites can/should you use and how should you attribute in articles?

Stephen Hutcheon, of the Sydney Morning Herald, flagged up an issue in a blog post on February 5. He is not happy with the way material from an interview he conducted with GoogleEarth (30/01/09) was used in an article on TimesOnline by Mike Harvey (30/01/09) – the latest version of which is at this link.

Hutcheon’s account can be read at this link with a screen grab of the Times’ original article.

The original Times piece shows the Sydney Morning Herald was named in the third paragraph, and, later in the piece, it again specified ‘Mr Hanke told the newspaper’.

Hutcheon had two complaints:

  • Firstly, that Harvey had not linked to his original article.
  • Secondly, the proportion of the article made up of Hutcheon’s quotes, which Hutcheon feels weren’t adequately labelled as his own work.

According to Hutcheon, Mike Harvey then contacted him with a ‘sincere apology’. “He said it was not his publication’s policy to link back to original articles but said that as a gesture of goodwill, they would do it.”

The TimesOnline article now has a link to the original SMH article, but Hutcheon remains unsatisfied:

“I told him I accepted his apology. However, he made no mention about my central complaint about the amount of material he lifted, nor does he appear to have cut out any from his piece. But that’s about as much as I can do. That, I told him, was an ethical matter between him and his editors.”

Journalism.co.uk asked Hutcheon about his own paper’s linking policy, via email. Hutcheon said:

“My issue is less with the lack of a link. We [SMH] don’t have a hard and fast policy on links. If we quote a par or so, no need to reference where it came from. But if we write a story about this amazing thing someone’s photographed or found, or written and the story is largely based on the other person’s discovery or effort, then yes. It’s a bit like writing about a YouTube video without pointing readers to it. Mike apologised but failed to cut back the almost 500 words – most of them direct quotes from my one-on-one interview with John Hanke. If traditional news organisations are prepared to let their reporters get away with this type of cheap journalism, then it’s a race to the bottom and we’re all doomed. If everyone just copies everyone else, who is left to do the original reporting?”

Journalism.co.uk contacted Tom Whitwell, assistant editor of TimesOnline to clarify the situation.

He said the Times’ linking policy was being worked on and while there ‘was no official linking policy’, journalists could link to other work at the moment.

However, he said, the subbing system and workflow in place – used for online as well as print work – meant links often got omitted. But ‘the general policy would be to link out to things’, he said.

“In terms of the principle I’m extremely firm that [we link] not as courtesy, but as service to the readers.”

In regards to the proportion of quotes used, Whitwell said:

“I think it’s fairly clear that he [Hanke] was talking to the Sydney Morning Herald (…) that particular example is reasonable.

“This isn’t something we do often as a policy. We don’t have a policy to do this regularly – I think in this particular instance it’s fairly clear to the reader what the story is.

“We do need to have a clear written policy at what point we link, and I’m in the process of putting that together. That to me, is interesting, the motivations for linking. To me, it’s purely about providing the service to readers (…) a better way of telling the story. The idea that it’s good manners, legally crediting something, isn’t the key thing for me.

“It is very different for online than print (…) I don’t want to get into the way some other newspapers operate, which is rather different from the way we operate, in terms of using material from other sites. In some sites there is real culture of picking up stories from lots and lots of places, constantly, as a matter of course. That’s not something we usually do,” Whitwell said.

The problem with linking arose in the production system, he said, which “has no way of capturing URLs, a purely manual process – I suspect this piece went through this process. We need to work out how to get the process to work.” Getting more links into place is ‘tricky’, but ‘not impossible’, he added.

Journalism.co.uk also contacted the Times piece’s author Mike Harvey, who did not respond by email.

Here’s an example where a paper did not attribute at all: a case over at Regret The Error, involving the NY Daily News, in which an accusation was made that material had been lifted from the Express-News, ‘without attribution’, for a piece on NYDailyNews.com.

A later amendment at NYDailyNews.com noted that ‘An earlier version of this story should have attributed quotes by certain individuals to reporting by the San Antonio Express-News.’

Hutcheon’s post hasn’t yet received any comments; perhaps this one is up for debate? Just how much is too much?

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Times responds to blogger’s claims of ‘cut-and-paste’ journalism

January 19th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Magazines, Newspapers, Online Journalism

It was human error, rather than calculated plagiarism, that led to the incident that Megan McArdle flagged up on her Atlantic.com blog last week. She had spotted two strikingly similar article extracts:

‘Doctors fear return of Steve Jobs’s pancreatic cancer‘ by David Rose, TimesOnline, January 15, 2009 (note: the article has now been amended)

In 2003 Mr Jobs learned that he had a malignant tumour in his pancreas – a large gland behind the stomach that supplies the body with insulin and digestive enzymes. The most common type of pancreatic cancer – adenocarcinoma – carries a life expectancy of about a year. Mr Jobs was lucky; he had an extremely rare form called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumour that can be treated surgically, without radiation or chemotherapy. (go to McArdle’s blog for more….)

Compared with:

‘Why Does Steve Jobs Look So Thin?‘ by Philip Elmer-DeWitt, Fortune magazine, June 13 2008

“In 2003 Jobs learned that he had a malignant tumor in his pancreas – a large gland behind the stomach that supplies the body with insulin and digestive enzymes. The most common type of pancreatic cancer – adenocarcinoma – carries a life expectancy of about a year. Jobs was lucky; he had an extremely rare form called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor that can be treated surgically, without radiation or chemotherapy.”(go to McArdle’s blog for more….)

McArdle said she read Rose’s piece and thought… ‘wait a minute, I’ve read this somewhere before’. But how did it come about?

It seems the root of the problem wasn’t David Rose, as an email from another journalist at the paper, Mike Harvey, to Megan McArdle revealed, in which he explained how he [Harvey] had added the additional comments ‘at the last moment before publication’.

“It was done in a real hurry and I meant to put the proper attribution in but failed to do so before I pinged the email off. It was a mistake made in haste and my thanks to you for pointing it out,” he wrote.

“As a blogger and technology writer I know the importance of sourcing and linking to sources and rightly feel aggrieved when it does not happen,” he added.

Journalism.co.uk has been informed by David Rose and Mike Harvey that this email is genuine. The article has now been changed – Journalism.co.uk has a screen-grab showing the original with the paragraph intact.

Harvey since told Journalism.co.uk that he was trying to correct an omission in the original piece before it went online. The additional information specified the specific type of cancer that Steve Jobs had (note: something which has also caused controversy on McArdle’s blog).

The Times’ managing editor, David Chappell, is now dealing with the issue; he had no further comment for Journalism.co.uk but confirmed David Rose’s information.

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