Guardian corrects byline on piece ‘substantially based on a Reuters story’

A Guardian editor’s byline shouldn’t have appeared above a story based on a Reuters article, the paper acknowledged Thursday. But how much does a news organization have to add to wire copy before it can take credit for a story?

The correction is explained in a footnote on an Oct. 9 story about Cisco Systems, Inc., cutting ties with ZTE Corporation. Its byline “did not reflect that the article was substantially based on a Reuters story,” the note reads. “A reference in the byline to agency copy, added by the staff journalist, was removed during the editing process.”

Now the byline reads “Staff and agencies.” (“Agencies” is how British journalists refer to what U.S. journalists call “wire services.”) Until the note appeared today, it said the piece was by Charles Arthur, the Guardian’s technology editor. But the Guardian’s piece was mostly the words of Reuters reporter Steve Stecklow, whose Oct. 8 story about Cisco Systems Inc. cutting ties with ZTE Corporation was billed by that news agency as an “exclusive.”

Here’s Stecklow’s lead:

Cisco Systems Inc. has ended a longstanding sales partnership with ZTE Corp after an internal investigation into allegations that the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker sold Cisco networking gear to Iran.

Cisco’s probe followed stories by Reuters in March and April that documented how Shenzhen, China-based ZTE had sold banned computer equipment from Cisco and other U.S. companies to Iran’s largest telecom firm. ZTE also agreed last year to ship millions of dollars worth of additional U.S. tech products, including Cisco switches, to a unit of the consortium that controls the telecom firm.

And here’s the Guardian’s:

Cisco Systems has curtailed a seven-year sales partnership with ZTE Corp after an internal investigation into allegations that the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker broke US sanctions by selling Cisco networking gear to Iran.

The probe followed stories by the Reuters news agency in March and April documenting how Shenzhen-based ZTE had sold computer equipment from Cisco and other US companies, which are banned from exporting to Iran, to TCI, that country’s largest telecoms firm.

In an emailed response to questions from Poynter Wednesday afternoon (Wednesday evening in the U.K.), Arthur said he’d “second-sourced [the Reuters piece] as far as I could” and that he “spoke to Cisco and spoke at least once, possibly twice, to ZTE and obtained quotations from them about whether they would resell Cisco gear, plus a fresh quote about how they would cover this.”

Arthur added a quote not found in Stecklow’s piece:

A ZTE spokesperson in the UK confirmed that as of Monday the company can no longer offer Cisco equipment, but said “we are confident we can offer equipment that our customers need”.

He also added two sentences and some expository language not in the original, bringing the word count on the Guardian piece to 821, compared to 715 for Stecklow’s.

Arthur tweeted out the story as being “By me,” which he explained is because of an automatic feed that shoots out any story on which he bylines to his 40,000-plus followers. He told me the byline should have read “Charles Arthur and agencies.”

The Guardian editorial code‘s policy on bylines says:

The source of published material obtained from another organisation should be acknowledged, including quotes taken from other newspaper articles. Bylines should be carried only on material that is substantially the work of the bylined journalist. If an article contains a significant amount of agency copy then the agency should be credited.

That seems to set a bar that still isn’t cleared by the “Staff and agencies” byline, which is exactly backward in terms of quantifying contribution to this story. (Also, isn’t the whole point of using wire copy that you don’t have to re-report it?) Reuters’ guidelines insist on credit to the news organization as well as the use of its logo, except on “mixed content pages.”

In reply to my question about whether the Guardian considered Arthur’s piece to be plagiarism, Guardian ombudsman Chris Elliott bounced me to Guardian News & Media communications chief Richard Lindsay, who told me via a representative:

“The Readers’ editor has now investigated the allegation of plagiarism in relation to the story Cisco Systems ends ZTE partnership. The contract between Reuters and the Guardian allows us to use the agency’s copy at our discretion but “for substantial Reuter’s usage, credit ‘Staff and agencies’.” Originally the staff reporter added “and agencies” to the byline but this was lost, due to an error, during the editing process. It was never his, or anyone’s, intention to pass the story off as his own and the byline has now been amended in line with the guidelines and a footnote placed on the article making clear the story was based substantially on a Reuter’s story. In addition we have placed a correction to that effect online and the Readers’ editor hopes to tackle the issues in more detail in his Open Door column on Monday. The Readers’ editor has apologised to Reuters for the mistake.”

A Reuters representative has not yet replied to my requests for its view.

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