Best Practices: Online and Multimedia

This July 20, 2012 file photo shows police outside of a Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colo. after a shooting during the showing of a movie. Police and fire officials failed to tell each other when and where rescuers were needed following the Aurora theater shootings, according to reports obtained by the Denver Post. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

Learning from prize-winning journalism: how to cover a breaking news story

In Poynter’s e-book, “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism,” we highlight and examine 10 award-winning works from 2013 through interviews with their creators.

These works are inspiring. They’re also instructive. Starting with the “secrets” shared with us by their creators, we’ve extracted some great lessons about how to learn to do better journalism, and paired them with questions to ask in your own newsroom.

In this first installment, we explore lessons learned from The Denver Post’s coverage of the Aurora theater shootings, which earned the newsroom recognition for its work, winning the ASNE distinguished writing award for deadline news reporting, the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News and The Scripps Howard Award for Breaking News. The Post also received positive feedback from the community, which pleased Post’s News Director Kevin Dale even more.

In “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism,” Dale examines the factors that contributed to the Post’s multiplatform coverage of a news story that broke shortly after 1 a.m., when only one person — the night digital producer — was left in the newsroom.

In Dale’s interview with Poynter affiliate faculty member Chip Scanlan, he shared some helpful lessons for covering breaking news:

Aim for accuracy

In breaking news stories, information develops rapidly, and credible sources are even more critical to understanding the true story. The Post didn’t publish a tweet or post until someone in the newsroom confirmed it.

“We knew we would be the source that people in Denver and around the world would turn to for accurate information,” Dale said. The lesson: keep your standards high even in a news frenzy when you see other organizations reporting information that hasn’t been verified.

Ask: what standards do you have for vetting information? How do you ensure the information you distribute is credible?

Use social media to listen and report

The Post dedicated a team to monitoring social media in the wake of the shooting. But it also used social media in three ways: to get information to the public, build stories and find sources. The newsroom posted entries to social media and compiled reporter and photographer tweets of verified facts. Reporters used Twitter and Facebook to find people who were in the theater. That let the Post obtain material, including raw phone video taken by people running from the theater after the shooting.

Ask: how could you more effectively use social media to listen for news and story ideas? How could you find (and vet) sources online (e.g. Facebook’s Open Graph search tool)?

Seek to understand developing narrative, craft strategy to deliver it

The Post’s coverage reflected a remarkable marriage of old and new media.

When the news broke, Dale knew it would be more than 24 hours before anything would be printed in the paper. But he immediately sent reporters and photographers to the scene, organized planning sessions and prioritized story assignments to publish digitally.

Most breaking news situations have several moving parts. Faced with this, the Post decided to prioritize creating a profile of alleged shooter James Holmes. Several reporters collaborated to create a complex and thorough story that took advantage of the strengths of both new and old media. They posted verified facts as online snippets throughout the day, then crafted a long-form narrative for print that put those details into better context.

Ask: what’s the most important content from a breaking news situation? How can you put your best resources to the most effective use? How do you decide on the best publishing vehicle?

Have a process, practice it often before breaking news happens

Faced with the question of whether or not to name the shooter, Dale and his team used previous experiences and discussions to guide their decision-making process. That process, coupled with social media and digital training, has helped the newsroom refine a “full-court strategy” that it put into motion for many major stories throughout the year.

“Plans can be written and put in a drawer and forgotten,” Dale warned. “I’m a fan of practicing solid breaking news, multiplatform journalism every single day. If that is the daily mission, the staff can respond to any story.”

Ask: what processes do you have in place for ethical decision-making on deadline and assembling resources to cover breaking news stories on multiple platforms?

Related: A victim’s mother asks journalists not to name suspect | Denver Post covers yet another shooting, ‘and the whole newsroom gets it’ | The story behind a compelling investigation into how Aurora shooter got his ammo

Resources and Training: Resources for Covering Gun Violence | Telling Smarter Stories about Gun Issues | Ethics and Credibility of Breaking News Online Read more

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Interactive Media

Explore the makings of interactive journalism

At some point, every journalist grapples with figuring out what his or her story is about – particularly if that story involves complex data sets or government documents, and the end result will be an interactive project rather than a straightforward narrative.

Perhaps Andrew DeVigal can help.

DeVigal is director of content strategy at Second Story and the former multimedia editor at The New York Times. In a phone interview, he shared the steps he takes when starting an interactive project to ensure the results form a cogent story.

The first question he asks himself is a deceptively simple one: “What does the content want to be?” It is a question he attributes to a former colleague at The Times, Steve Duenes, AME for graphics.

DeVigal, a self-described “natural organizer,” likes to partition the information into buckets to understand the different pieces of the story. In doing that, he will ask himself such questions as, “What is the information about?”, “Who does it affect?” and “What is at stake here?”

When he has a solid understanding of the information available to him, his next step is to “highlight the most important key elements.” That helps him determine how to present the interactive so the viewer can dive into complexity, or skim if the information is too complex.

“That’s the true craft of a journalist: to make things clear for the viewers and readers,” he said.

DeVigal’s last step before building the interactive is to think about the audience and the context in which they will see the story. Analyzing the potential audience is very difficult, DeVigal said, especially for general-purpose news sites that are “trying to hit as many people as possible.” Nonetheless, he added that it’s crucial to “frame the presentation so that you actually have a very known target audience,” even if that leads you to creating two different versions of your interactive aimed at different target audience.

What is interactive journalism?

DeVigal’s philosophy on interactives has been shaped by a career that began in informational graphics at The Chicago Tribune, took him to Knight-Ridder as a designer and brought him to San Francisco State University as a professor of visual journalism while he was a fellow and visiting faculty at Poynter, and then led him to the Times. After six years in New York, DeVigal moved to Oregon and began working for Second Story, a design studio specializing in interactive storytelling and part of SapientNitro.

But what is interactive journalism, anyway?

The term has described many multimedia news packages — think Snowfall, Gauging Your Distraction, Firestorm, A World Apart and Hazardous Hospitals. These projects combine video, photos, audio, graphics, maps, data visualizations and text to tell stories that couldn’t exist before the Internet.

But DeVigal sees interactive journalism as far more than a reflection of which media are used for storytelling. To him, it’s a carefully crafted experience, one that draws users in and lets them create their own individual stories from the content available.

Several aspects of interactives allow this. For starters, viewers can consume a story at their own pace and find their own path through it, instead of following a linear presentation typical of print.

Open pathways lead to personalization: DeVigal wants to make viewers feel as if the “story was about themselves.”

He offered the example of a map — it’s interactive because a user can start with the big picture and then drill down to only see information on, say, California. The ability to switch perspectives gives designers breathing room to introduce more complex information that wasn’t possible in static print stories. The user can also customize the map, creating a new and unique experience every time.

An experiment in film

Since DeVigal started working outside of the news industry, he has had more freedom to experiment. In October, for instance, DeVigal and his team at Second Story experimented with an interactive storytelling project, Shape of Story, at a screening of seven short films on gun rights and gun-control laws at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore.

Shape of Story from Second Story on Vimeo.

During each film, viewers were asked to tap a button on an app every time they had an emotional reaction. Immediately after each film, the Second Story team projected a visualization on the screen showing which moments caused the most reactions from the audience. This visualization was the shape of the story.

Viewers also had three minutes to submit comments through the app, with the team choosing comments to display on the big screen alongside the visualization.

The goal wasn’t to find the perfect shape of story, but to explore whether interactions among audience members could add value to the movie-going experience.

The short answer according to Nora Bauman, operations manager at Second Story, is yes. The key to interactives, she said in a phone interview, is that “you’re creating an experience for a user so they can write their own narrative.”

Perhaps that’s why DeVigal has always asked the same question, regardless of the medium he’s using or where he’s been employed: “Can we bring the same special ingredient around campfire storytelling into the ways we’re telling stories?”

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Correction and clarification: A previous version of this story located the Hollywood Theatre in Los Angeles rather than Portland, Ore. DeVigal attributes a question he asks himself to a former colleague, Steve Duenes, and Second Story is a part of SapientNitro. Read more

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obama & pete souza

PoynterVision: White House photo practices break promise of open government

Kenny Irby, senior faculty at Poynter, advises the public to critically analyze photos from the White House Press Office, particularly as it routinely denies photojournalists access to the president.

Founder of Poynter’s photojournalism program, Irby says he doesn’t believe the Obama administration is living up to its promise of “open government.”

Irby argues White House chief photographer Pete Souza‘s role is more that of a “propagandist” than a photojournalist since his job is to make the president “look good, make the president look presidential.”

In the past week, several news organizations, including the McClatchy newspapers, USA Today and the AP have said they will not use handout photos originating from the White House Press Office, except in rare circumstances.

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Three simple Google tools journalists can adopt to draw traffic

Google is increasingly emphasizing the ways it can be of service to the media, and the company held a summit in Chicago last week sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Online News Association and Northwestern University’s Knight Lab.

I won’t get into the weeds of how to build Fusion Tables or use the Maps Engine in this recap of the event — see Google’s new Media Tools site for detailed resources. Instead, here are three simple strategies for taking advantage of Google’s products that you can implement right away.

1. Sign up for Google+ Authorship

Google’s Nicholas Whitaker opened a session on Google+ by asking how many of us had a Google+ profile. Most of us raised our hands. Then he asked how many of us actually use our Google+ profiles. The majority of those hands went down, triggering laughter.

To be fair, a comprehensive introduction to any social network, including Facebook and Twitter, would likely be as overwhelming as this one was. The difference is that getting people to use Facebook and Twitter never required quite as much convincing — adoption happened more organically, whereas using Google+ feels like jumping through fiery hoops at a circus with sparse attendance.

I’m still not convinced diverting major social-media resources to Google+ posts makes sense, but news organizations and individual journalists should take a minute to sign up for Authorship. If you have an email address on the same domain as your content (e.g. an email if you write for, it’s easy to link your bylined stories that show up in Google Search with your Google+ profile and other articles you’ve written. That’s good for discoverability and doesn’t require any extra work once you’ve set it up.

Google is, of course, the dominant search engine. So that makes this hoop worth jumping through even if you don’t buy into the social sharing aspect of Google+. Noted Whitaker: “As a journalist, the best thing to do is take ownership of your Google+ profile and your authorship online.”

2. Try Google URL shortener

The folks at Google didn’t lead a session on this particular tool, but Fernando Diaz, the managing editor of Hoy, Tribune’s Spanish-language paper in Chicago, said during a panel that his publication uses Google URL Shortener. A big advantage over Bitly: It breaks down clicks by browser (such as Safari vs. Firefox vs. Chrome) and platform (such as Macintosh vs. Linux vs. Windows).

How many of your readers visit you via mobile devices? Which devices, and at what time of day? These answers can help determine the best time to tweet stories, and whether to use mobile-friendly links if you have them.

One caveat: These analytics are public, so if you want your click analytics to be proprietary, Google URL Shortener isn’t for you. But it’s a good option for journalists who want a very simple way to track what’s happening to their links after they tweet them or tout them with a Facebook post.

3. Become more visible on Google News

News organizations can’t afford to miss out on the referral possibilities from Google News aggregation, so Google’s Natalie Gross offered best practices for making sure the crawler picks up your stories as efficiently as possible — by submitting a Google News Sitemap, for example.

Publishers should also be aware of keyword metatags to emphasize subject matter that might not be obvious from certain headlines (see: “WALL ST. LAYS AN EGG”) and the standout tag, which can be used up to seven times per week for significant stories.

Related: Google gathers tools for journalists in one spot Read more

Google co-founder Sergey Brin wears the company's Glass at an event in February. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

PoynterVision: Experiment with wearables

Many reporters shy away from early adoption of new technology. With wearables like Google Glass and smartwatches entering the market, Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of American Press Institute and former Poynter digital fellow, suggests ways for you to jump ahead of the curve and experiment with wearables.

For more on the news impact of wearables, watch the complete Webinar replay of Preparing Journalism for the Age of Wearable Devices at Poynter NewsU. Use the promo code 13POYNTER100WEAR to get unlimited free access to the on-demand replay.

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Related: PoynterVision: Consuming news on wearables | PoynterVision: Watch out for wearables Read more


What students need to know about code and data viz

A stunning amount of data is available to journalists these days, and it is growing exponentially. Not surprisingly, the need for data journalists is expanding as well.

Data-driven journalism is a diverse field that involves interpreting data, developing programming code, and creating databases, maps, charts and other visualizations. Some of the skills required take considerable study. But we often overlook the complexity of data journalism and leave our young journalists without the knowledge they need to succeed.

What should students know about code and data visualizations? What skills should be taught to best prepare them for jobs in data-driven journalism?

Northwestern University Medill School professor Jeremy Gilbert, University of Southern California Annenberg School professor Robert Hernandez, ringleader of For Journalism Dave Stanton and I got together to discuss the tremendous possibilities at the intersection of data, technology and news. Our live chat focused on what educators need to teach and students should learn to succeed in computational journalism.

Replay this chat to see the resources we all shared. Find our archives at

To ask a question, please use the comment box below.
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Germany Samsung Gadget Show

PoynterVision: Watch out for wearables

Forget the latest iPhone or Android tablet. Watches are the next big thing to hit the market. Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute, tells why news organizations should pay attention to wearables, and he weighs the pros and cons of the devices.

For more on the news impact of wearables, watch the complete Webinar replay of Preparing Journalism for the Age of Wearable Devices at Poynter NewsU. Use the promo code 13POYNTER100WEAR to get unlimited free access to the on-demand replay. Read more

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

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 2.11.36 PM

How news nonprofits are making money

How can nonprofit news organizations diversify their revenue streams? A recent report from the Knight Foundation surveyed 18 nonprofit news outlets between 2010 to 2012 to find the most effective practices in the areas of finances, organizational structure and audience engagement.

Although most nonprofits increased revenue, relying less on foundation grants and bringing in money from individual donors, sponsorships, events and syndication, financial stability is still a big concern for nonprofit news.

Our guests: Anne Galloway, the founder and editor of Vermont-based VTDiggerMark Katches, the editorial director of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, and Mayur Patel, the Knight Foundation’s vice president of strategy and assessment.

VTDigger is a five-year-old organization with six full-time employees and an annual budget under $400,000; CIR was founded in 1977 and has a staff of 73 and a budget of $10 million.

You can replay this chat at any time and find our chat archives at

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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

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