Getting digital attribution right, Part 1

Control+C, Control+V.

These two simple keystrokes — copy, paste — have created a culture that makes it easy for online publishers to share others’ content and use it in their own work. Much of this sharing and reuse is done appropriately, but sometimes the way a work is credited may not meet traditional standards for attribution.

Most people agree on a definition of plagiarism: It’s a verbatim republication of work that was originally published elsewhere, without clear attribution to the original publication. But ask how to apply that definition to practices and things get murky. Some say any use of more than seven words should be attributed. Others say attribution becomes necessary when more than two sentences are used. Applying that definition to the online publishing world introduces even more gray areas.

The Poynter Institute has written about attribution-related topics frequently in recent years. Those efforts have led to lively discussions, in part because there are new ways to give credit when using another’s work besides the traditional and widely accepted quotation marks. You can offset another’s work in a blockquote, link to the original source, mention someone on a social-media post, or use tools that share the original post on a social network. Which of these methods are sufficient in properly crediting the original content? That’s where views vary and conversations can turn heated.

The PR question

Here’s another wrinkle for publishers trying to determine what content requires attribution: Corporate-communicators and public-relations practitioners widely distribute releases and official statements that come complete with facts and quotes. Those releases are often written by people who used to work for news organizations. And the PR practitioners want their work republished.

Some newsrooms struggling with fewer resources and more pressure to publish frequently use this PR material verbatim, and without attribution. That fits the definition of plagiarism, but raises a key question: Is it plagiarism if the original source consents to the republication and finds attribution unnecessary?

In July 2011, the Kansas City Star fired columnist Steve Penn for using content from press releases in his columns without attribution, declaring that he was fired for “using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own.”

Penn later sued the Star’s owner, McClatchy Newspapers, for defamation of character. In his complaint, he claimed the Star’s accusations of plagiarism were false and resulted in “damage to his reputation and a loss of business standing … including lost job opportunities.”

Penn said that such attribution hadn’t been required in his previous experience and training at the Star, and therefore he would occasionally use such releases unattributed, with the knowledge of his editors.

In the complaint, Penn also said: “The widespread practice in journalism is to treat such press releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or published, and preferably with no or minimal editing.”

Penn’s statements highlight an issue online publishers are often unclear about: Now that organizations have the ability to publish content directly, without the press as a middleman, how should journalists use and attribute information that comes from an official source via press release, a prepared statement, an official social-media account or some other widely distributed avenue?

Attributing a quote or fact, even when it comes from an official source, gives the audience more context about that information and how it was acquired by the writer. “It tells readers how we know what we know,” said Steve Buttry, Digital First Media’s digital transformation editor, in his blog post “You can quote me on that: Advice on attribution for journalists.”

Gerard Corbett, 2012 chair and CEO for the Public Relations Society of America, said in a blog post that attribution is “recommended” when a quote is reused or facts or figures are cited, but added that in general, “PRSA views the issuance of a news release as giving implicit consent to re-use and publish the news release’s content.”

In that post, Corbett noted that most public-relations professionals like to see their press releases published in print: “After all, those words found their way into the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. What better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release?”

When deciding whether to publish information that comes via an organization’s official release, it’s important to consider the context of the source. The release could reflect a skewed perspective — or, worse, the information may not be accurate. So by publishing information in a release verbatim, you potentially run afoul of the important ethical value of acting independently and holding those who are powerful accountable.

Additionally, disseminating information published in official releases without additional reporting may not allow for diversity of voices in the conversation, especially on social media. When people recirculate the same information, they contribute to the echo chamber of the existing conversation online, instead of adding new knowledge.

Practical guidance

Using a release as a resource instead of as a source can be a great first step in your reporting process. It shouldn’t be the only step, however.

Social-media posts, like official statements, can be a great starting point for reporters. But the information people find via either of these channels should be considered the equivalent of information that comes across a police scanner. You never know what else you might get by interviewing a source on your own instead of by relying on a prepared statement.

What should be included in an editorial policy for how content creators should best use information or quotes from an official source?

An organization should update its existing policies, or if necessary, create a policy for how to use information created by others, including official sources. These policies should identify potential trouble areas and provide clarity on how to avoid practices that could possibly be interpreted as plagiarism.

Example: Arizona State on plagiarism

Arizona State provides guidance to help its students avoid plagiarism, and its informative page could be a useful guide for organizations looking to develop editorial polices regarding such issues.

Below is a summary of ASU’s suggested standards and practices:

1. Explain why these standards are important. ASU begins its policy by articulating the journalistic standards of honesty and accuracy that drive the expectations it has for its students.

2. Identify trouble spots and how to handle them. ASU sets clear standards for what is expected when students copy and paste information from other sources. It recommends that students use quotes when using exact language, paraphrasing the content into original words when possible, and always attributing the entire statement to the original source.

3. Explain when attribution is not required:

  • When information is “commonly known to a majority of the people.”
  • When including background information for stories that is “undisputed factually and is available from a wide variety of reliable sources.”
  • When witnessing something firsthand.

4. Clarify how official statements or releases should be used in reporting, if at all. When using press releases, the ASU guidelines make clear that “rules of attribution apply.”

The guidelines go on to suggest that when you use content from a press release and don’t attribute it, you are misleading the audience into thinking you spoke to a source directly, so full disclosure is necessary. The same goes for content acquired via email or from an organization’s web site.

While the list above isn’t comprehensive, it highlights some of the topics of greatest concern.

When “teachable moments” come up within an organization, especially about an issue not included already in the editorial guidelines, those issues should be discussed and editors should consider revising those guidelines. As with any policy or procedure, custom-tailor the guidelines to the needs of the organization and preserve flexibility by treating them as a work in progress.

Conclusion

The journalist’s role is to seek truth and report it. Social networks and blogging have introduced an abundance of new publishers that create more news and information to share than ever before. And the nature of social media is to share. On Twitter, it’s easier to retweet someone else’s content than it is to create your own. On Facebook, one click lets you share content created by a friend created with your entire network. Because it’s so easy to share, information travels faster than ever before — and the audience is in charge.

With so much new information being published and shared so quickly, the role of journalists is expanding. They’re no longer just storytellers, but also sense-makers who guide audiences to relevant and verifiable information by sharing it with them.

Given this culture shift, online publishers that lack a traditional journalism background will challenge the rules and standards created by journalists for journalists. And that makes it even more important to find a solution to attribution questions. And that solution must recognize the nature and habits of the community without compromising what is ultimately important: truth.

Tomorrow: Getting digital attribution right, Part 2

Ellyn Angelotti is Poynter’s faculty member for digital trends and social media. This case study, the third in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.

Related: 6 ways journalists can use press releases | Seven ways to make your work easy to fact check | How to handle plagiarism | Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists

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