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.” 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?” 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. 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

A later amendment at 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?

5 thoughts on “How much is too much? Defining the grey areas in attribution and linking

  1. Sam Shepherd

    Of course they should have a linking policy. Firstly, if they nick things (and that’s what it is, basically) then it’s not just polite to credit/link but downright rude not to.
    Secondly, if it’s something the reader can easily find, then what’s the point in not linking? All the reader will do is turn to Google to find it.
    It IS a service for readers – and as things change, not linking will make a news site look not just outdated but suspect. “Why don’t you want us to see your source? Is it because the story isn’t true/not yours/out of context?” Amy Gahran at wrote a post saying that’s exactly what she thinks when a site doesn’t have links.
    If you withhold links to keep traffic on your site, people notice. They know what you’re playing at and they don’t like it.
    And there’s always the ‘do as you would be done to’ argument. If you’d want other people to link to content they’d ‘borrowed’ from you then you should do the same in return.

  2. Robert Andrews

    This week, a national newspaper site copy-and-pasted whole paragraphs from both my site and a rival paper’s site and ran the chunks as a story with no kind of attribution whatsoever.

  3. Matt B (Thanet Star)

    If my work was used as research, if my work was quoted in any way what-so-ever or if my site(s) were mentioned then I expect to see a link. The link is the equivalent of an academic citation and as such I would expect a professor to fail any student failing to cite all sources.

    Newspaper backed journalism has a strong reputation for being extremely rude and selfish in it’s utter lack of citation. Printed reports are the worst often citing a blog by name and getting it wrong with no other way for readers to ever find the blog in question. This is just outright laziness. I takes me less than 4 seconds to hit the quick link to and create a 25 character short-cut to a URL. Any argument that this is too hard for supposed experts is, frankly, BS of the highest, smelliest, ugliest order.

    In modern hyper textual media (web pages, for example) the only indicator of a citation is the hyper-link. Search engines recognise this so quoting me and not linking to my blog is actually robbing me of a “vote” and denying me traffic which relates directly to income. To me as a blogger failure to link to me correctly is as bad as stealing money because it amounts to the same loss. It is like employing a freelancer and then failing to pay. This is why many bloggers have little to do with traditional journalists – you never pay your bills.

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