Articles about "Attribution"

Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron complained to the New York Times about not crediting his paper. Times Public Editor Sullivan e-mailed with the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, about the issue. He replied:

One complication is that there’s no clear or simple rule on when and how to credit. When information reported by another news organization is not widely known and we haven’t been able to match it ourselves, we normally attribute it or link to the source. But in cases where we have done our own reporting, it’s less clear-cut. We still want to credit another news organization if they have done major enterprise or have unearthed a big story — something no one would have known about without that initial reporting. But for an ongoing story or beat — where lots of reporters are chasing the same story line and may break different elements at different times — it’s not always practical or useful to tell readers, well, this element was first reported by News Organization A, and this other part was broken by Organization B, and we were the first to report these other pieces, etc.

Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times

Attribution in a digital age is getting murkier. (Depositphotos)

Getting digital attribution right, Part 2

This is the second of a two-part series. Part 1 is here.

Traditional journalism standards have typically governed attribution, and the general rule when using the work of others verbatim is to put quotation marks around the republished content and clearly indicate the source.

But this isn’t the only method of attribution used in the digital world — publishers are trying different tactics, and audience expectations may be changing as well. During a recent Poynter and MediaShift symposium on journalism ethics in the digital age, Tom Rosenstiel, former Project for Excellence in Journalism director and current executive director of the American Press Institute, said that the norms and ethics of journalism “have come from the streets,” adding that “audience has been the determiner of what works.”

Aggregation and curation, two techniques that often overlap, have become popular forms of publishing — and places where problems with attribution often arise. Aggregators gather information related to a topic that’s been published elsewhere into a single article, telling a story with material from different sources and, typically, linking to them. Similarly, curators guide readers through a story by offering links to content created by others, with context and commentary added along the way. These publishing forms appeal to social-media communities that like to share and are encouraged to do so. But the fast-paced, quick-hit rhythms of aggregation potentially challenge truth in several ways.

Poynter confronted the challenge of attribution issues and aggregation with a blog on by Jim Romenesko, in which he commonly aggregated, linked to, paraphrased and quoted from the work of others. After a dispute over attribution issues that highlighted Poynter’s need for clear and consistent practices, Romenesko resigned in 2011 and started a new blog.

Roy Peter Clark, vice-president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has written frequently about attribution and raised the question of whether print standards are outdated when applied to digital publishers.

“There are enduring standards, to be sure, and we should be influenced by them,” Clark wrote in 2011. “But the cultural mores governing intellectual property have been in constant flux for centuries and are currently under special strain.”

These attribution issues raise ethical concerns of truth and transparency related to both the content itself and the person creating it. And such situations are increasingly common: consider the practice of “patchwriting.”

In a 2008 study, Rebecca Moore Howard, professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, defined patchwriting as “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.”

Patchwriting isn’t plagiarism, but it relies too much on what the original source says, hindering the patchwriter’s ability to create new ideas. Kelly McBride, a Poynter senior faculty member for ethics, has called patchwriting “more common” than plagiarism and “just as dishonest.”

To avoid patchwriting’s perils, McBride suggests writers starting an assignment ask themselves this question: “What can we provide to our audience that’s different than what’s already been published?” That answer can then become a foundation for more-original work.

Practical Guidance

A common problem is that writers lack guidance about how to attribute information found elsewhere, especially online. Organizations should review their values and policies related to attribution, and create policies if they don’t exist.

The examples below represent possible approaches organizations can take in coaching their writers and editors about clear attribution of information that they would like to repurpose.

Example: The Associated Press on user-generated content

Last year, Poynter’s Craig Silverman talked with Fergus Bell, a social-media and UGC editor for the AP, about the verification process he developed for the organization.

Bell told Silverman that he and his colleagues strive to find the original source and speak to the person who created the information they want to use. Bell’s new verification process for user-generated content builds on best practices and the existing AP verification process. It also depends on consistency and following the process even in urgent breaking-news situations.

The first stage is to “confirm and verify the original source.”

Steps in this process include:
1. Find the earliest example.
2. Check the source’s social history.
3. Ask the source questions

The next stage is to “verify content and context.”

The process involves these steps:
4. Secure permission to use.
5. Compare content with AP reporting.
6. Check content with regional experts.

The AP publishes disclaimers to accompany UGC content designed to explain AP’s process and manage its audience’s expectations. Bell gave this sample that might be used with a video script:

++USER GENERATED CONTENT: UGC cannot be absolutely verified. This video has been authenticated based on the following validation checks:
++Video and audio translated and content checked by regional experts against known locations and events
++Video is consistent with independent AP reporting
++Video cleared for use by all AP clients by content creator

Example: Embed practices in standards and explain them to the audience.

Poynter’s attribution policy for its website takes the approach of explaining its organizational standards and the practices based on those standards.

Standard: We maintain high standards of reporting, writing, and editing in order to produce work that is as error-free as possible.

Practice: We create and edit our journalism in ways aimed at anticipating problem areas, reducing mistakes, and correcting them as quickly and transparently as we can. We maintain an online corrections page that makes it easy for the audience to report errors. We provide timely response, clear corrections, and prominent acknowledgement that a mistake was made and addressed. We credit the authors and creators of the various forms of journalism we publish. We apply appropriate scrutiny to work by staff and contributing writers to prevent plagiarism, intentional or otherwise. We do not intentionally mislead with words or images. We do not deliberately deceive as we gather information.

Tips for creating a content-verification process

Establishing a consistent process for vetting and verifying content that others create can provide a framework for handling such material during high-pressure situations or when colleagues are unsure of the content’s origin. Once such a process is created, communicate it throughout the organization.

The following questions will help when creating criteria for a vetting and verification process:

How do we determine what makes a source trustworthy? First, when finding a story idea, it’s important to confirm that news or idea with a trustworthy source.

How do we determine who said that trustworthy information first? It can be difficult to determine who said what first. To give the most value to truth, a writer should give credit to the original source, not someone who merely republished that content. People seek sources they can trust for credible news. For aggregation to be trustworthy, it should state the linked information accurately and be transparent about who said it first.

What information should be attributed, and how do we best communicate where this information came from with our audience? In an effort to add their own voice, aggregators often change a few words around in repurposing something and linking to it. But such efforts don’t always clearly indicate to the audience which words the original publisher created and which words the aggregator created. In such a situation, it’s often better to use the original speaker’s text, attributed with quotation marks and a link to the original publication.

The value of human contact

While digital tools let us overcome distance and time to connect with people in new ways, when it comes to vetting and verifying information, the more human contact you have with a source, the better. An in-person interview is better than a video-conference interview because it gives you a better chance to notice someone’s body language and non-verbal cues. And, in turn, video conferencing is preferable to a phone conversation because you can see the person in addition to simply hearing their voice. When it comes to vetting and verification, the more information you can gather, the more confident you will be.

Here are guidelines that will help vet and verify information:

1. When possible, acquire the information firsthand.

2. If that’s not possible, say how you acquired the information — during a phone interview, via an email, at a press conference, in a prepared statement, in a direct message on Twitter, in a Facebook post, and so forth.

3. When you find information on social media, use it as a lead but never as the final step in the reporting process. You want to be able to confirm that the person who posted the information is who they say they are, and you also want to confirm that the information they published is true. To do this you first need to identify the original source, which may require a little digging and contacting those who have republished the information. Your ultimate goal will be to find the first known publication of the content and contact that person to confirm that the information is true and that they were the original creator.

4. Contact the original source. Use information shared on a social-media profile to try to find a way to contact a person privately — via email, a Twitter direct message, or some other method. If they don’t share much about themselves on their profile, try a Google search of their name or social-media alias.

5. Quote information appropriately. Determine how you will attribute information and stick with that convention. The important thing is to make it clear to your audience what content you created and what content was created by others — and who those others are.

6. Link to the original source, even if you quote someone’s work appropriately

7. Mention the original source on social media. This will encourage that person to share your story with their network. It may also help you build a new relationship, since the person may appreciate the exposure to your own network.

Attribution tips

  • Avoid copying and pasting when republishing content. Typing out the content you are using from another source makes you more aware of how much you’re using and how you’re using it.
  • Quote and attribute. Use exact words from the source and put them in quotes. Then label the quote with who said it or wrote it, link to it and mention it on social media.
  • If you are republishing someone else’s image or video, first be sure you have the original content. Then be sure you have permission to use it. When you use this content, mention who created it and then link back to the original post.

Attribution on social media

Social media sites have their own conventions for crediting others.

If you are republishing someone’s content verbatim, put a “RT” (“retweet”) in front of your tweet. If you are republishing essentially the same message but changing a few words, preface your tweet with MT (“modified tweet”).

When you see a Facebook post you’d like to post to your own page, the “share” button lets you do so easily. When sharing content on Facebook, only the content itself transfers, not the caption your friend wrote, so you’ll have to write your own. Facebook also lets you tag or mention Facebook friends and pages within a post. To tag a friend or a page, start typing their name and a drop-down list that includes them should appear. If it doesn’t show up, type an @ before the name of the person or page. Click on the name you want to tag and it will automatically create a link to that person or page.

Additional resources:
How to find an original source of an image on Pinterest
Flickr teams with Pinterest, releases share button for proper photo attribution

Ellyn Angelotti is Poynter’s faculty member for digital trends and social media. This is the fourth in a series of case studies underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.

Related: Getting digital attribution right, Part 1 | 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 Read more

Computer keyboard keys used CTRL, C and V for copy and paste. (Depositphotos)

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.


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 Read more


Journalism orgs launch free ebook for preventing, detecting and handling plagiarism and fabrication

By the end of last summer, I was worn out.

It seemed like every week brought a new, awful incident of plagiarism or fabrication at news organizations large and small. My job was to write about all of them, to try and get more information about what happened and why, and to make sense of what was taking place.

A lot of the time I was rebuffed by senior newsroom staffers when asking for more information or basic disclosure.

Why I was expending so much effort when it seemed no one wanted to talk about what was going on? I was frustrated, and I channeled that into a post called “Journalism’s Summer of Sin marked by plagiarism, fabrication, obfuscation”, which listed every recent known incident and called out newsroom leaders for being unwilling to engage and show accountability.

“When the worst happens at a news organization, wagons are circled, stonewalls erected,” I said. “It’s a corrosive form of hypocrisy when — in a moment of crisis — journalists do the exact things that drive them crazy.”

I didn’t expect much to happen when I suggested journalism associations come together “to have their ethics committees (and/or boards) look at this issue, gather what material and policies they have, and determine what guidance they can offer to newsrooms. This needs to be an initiative that cuts across organizations, mediums and disciplines to serve all journalists.”

Then I got an email from American Copy Editors Society President Teresa Schmedding that basically said, “Okay, let’s do this.” Read more


Editor of Daily Mail’s website defends attribution practices in face of growing criticism

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has a profile of the Daily Mail and the place it holds in Britain. The timing is perfect: last week the paper won 10 prizes at the U.K. Press Awards and the Mail was named Newspaper of the Year.

Writer Lauren Collins focuses most of her New Yorker piece on the paper, but also talks with Martin Clarke, editor of Mail Online, the Web version of the Mail. Recently, it was recognized as the newspaper site with the biggest online reach worldwide, according to one major analytics firm.

In addition to attracting lots of traffic, the Mail’s website has recently become a lightning rod for criticism. Earlier this month, I wrote about two Newsweek/Daily Beast writers (1,2) who said Mail Online stole their work and either offered no credit or the “tiniest fig leaf of attribution.”

These accusations have become increasingly frequent. Gawker’s Danny Gold expressed concerns in rather forceful terms earlier this month:

It’s not just that they steal stories so blatantly. They’ve been doing it for years, this is nothing new. It’s that they’re a bunch of assholes about it. They go out of their way to fuck over journalists and they reap the benefits by becoming the most highly trafficked newspaper on the Internet. How hard would it be to put in one link to an article?

So what does Clarke have to say about the accusations of story stealing and related claims of plagiarism? Here’s what he told Collins:

“We never like to follow a story without improving it, with either new facts, graphics, pictures, or video.” He went on, “We are also still catching up on some aspects of our Web-publishing platform, which was originally built just to put a newspaper online rather than run a rolling Internet news service. We will soon be introducing features that will allow us to link easily and prominently to other sites when further recognition of source material is needed.

His first defense — that they add value — relates to how the Mail’s site displays stories: they embed a ton of photos and other imagery within the text of the story (see this example for one of the stories taken from Newsweek).

And, yes, the Mail will often also add in facts from other stories, sometimes taking an American story and bringing in an example or two from elsewhere in the world. That was the case with another story taken from Newsweek, but the Mail version was taken offline not long after my post was published about the accusations of theft.

Of course, none of those points negate the way Mail Online treats content from other publishers:

  • Mail Online often reprints entire sentences and paragraphs without permission or attribution.
  • When it helps itself to copy from elsewhere and does decide to offer some form of credit, the most the Mail can manage is but one mention of the original source.
  • It does not link back to other media outlets. (Clarke blames this on the way their site is designed.)
  • When called out for stealing a story, Mail Online will sometimes remove the offending copy from its website without acknowledging the offense and/or apologizing.

Clarke told Collins that Mail Online adheres to fair use. That’s a puzzling statement when a portion of the online stories that bear the “Daily Mail Reporter” byline are taken from elsewhere without thought to fair use, netiquette or ethical aggregation.

The two recent examples of work taken from Newsweek are just the latest in a long line of Mail Online stories that liberally cut and paste copy from other websites. Recently, Mail Online has stolen stories and text from The IndependentThe Scotsman and Wikipedia, Bikya Masr, and the BBC, among others.

The U.K.-based Tabloid Watch blog has been cataloging similar incidents for some time. Visit the site’s plagiarism category page and scroll down for offense after offense. Poynter also previously reported on a particularly egregious bit of theft by the website.

It’s all the more remarkable, then, that of the 10 awards The Daily Mail won, one was for Website of the Year. In the citation for Mail Online, judges said the site’s “large amount of original content makes it essential reading in the newsrooms of competitors.”

Of course, it’s also possible competitors are visiting Mail Online to see if their stories have ended up there under someone else’s byline… Read more

1 Comment