Bobby Ross Jr. is a veteran religion reporter and a man of faith. He edits The Christian Chronicle, an independent news organization serving the Church of Christ community.
It was surprising, then, when Ross took to Twitter last week to call out a Fox News reporter. The cable TV network “aggregated” (Ross will say “stole”) one of his best stories without doing its own reporting and without acknowledging Ross’ ground-breaking work.
Ross’ scoop? Remember the American missionary doctor who almost died after contracting Ebola while treating patients in Liberia during the 2014 crisis, only to be saved by an experimental drug that had never been tested in humans? After five years, Dr. Kent Brantly is headed back to Africa to treat the sick. And Ross scored an in-depth interview with him, his wife, his counselor and his fellow missionary doctors.
That’s a great story, right? Ross knew it from the moment he got the tip. As a religion journalist, Ross has a lot of experience with great stories. His work has appeared in the LA Times and The Washington Post.
In 2005, Ross joined The Christian Chronicle, an independent, non-profit, monthly newspaper that covers the 12,000 Churches of Christ across the United States, as well as the international community. The 36-page tabloid is delivered monthly to 138,000 mailboxes. More than half his budget comes from donations. The rest comes from advertising. The Christian Chronicle has a full-time staff of three, counting Ross as the editor in chief.
So when he landed the Dr. Brantly story, Ross’ instincts told him it would be a hit. He’s been working on a digital-first strategy and he hoped a large audience would come to his small news site to read the story — and perhaps some of them would stick around and read some of their other stories.
But the nice-guy church newspaper editor based in Oklahoma City got pretty upset when he saw a remarkably similar story, with many of the same details, post to Fox’s news site two days later. It wasn’t plagiarism, which is the word-for-word copying of information, but aggregation — the now-common practice of publishing or broadcasting someone else’s work with some credit. For a guy who’s covered religion for 25 years, the insult still stung.
“If they had done the reporting, I wouldn’t be so mad. But this is just so blatant,” Ross said in a phone interview. “I understand aggregation, but this is just stealing. They are stealing our very limited resources, when they have so much.”
A Fox editor conceded that Fox reporter Caleb Parke did not interview Brantly or any other sources for the story, which ran on foxnews.com. But the massive cable news site deemed Parke’s work legitimate, because he links to the Christian Chronicle twice when using direct quotes Brantly told to Ross.
It’s not exactly honest, is it? If an author tells you he got a quote from another publication, but reports all the other information without attribution, readers will naturally assume the reporter with the byline at the top of the story obtained all the other facts on his own.
It’s clear that Parke based his 400-word story entirely on Ross’ 1,500-word story. Every significant detail that appears in the Fox News piece first appeared in Ross’ piece, which was published 48 hours earlier.
The Fox News article never explains that the story about Brantly’s return to Africa was originally and solely reported by The Christian Chronicle. While the Fox story ran with an old video interview of Brantly, shot after his recovery in 2014, there is no new information or perspective added to the story.
Through their public relations department, Fox News’ digital editor-in-chief Porter Berry said the aggregation meets the company’s standards.
“Our policy on aggregation and transparency is to always credit and link to the sources we cite and we did so in this article on Dr. Brantly,” Barry wrote in an email, delivered by Fox’s public relations department. “This is all we ask of outlets that use our content and we believe it reflects the generally accepted practices of all major media outlets.”
That’s not quite the industry standard, though. Journalists have debated the ethics of aggregating content for two decades and for good reason. How does an industry that builds credibility based on truth-telling and transparency engage in a practice that involves using original content created by others?
In general, four principles of ethical aggregation have emerged:
- Transparent attribution: It must be clear to the audience where the information came from. This goes beyond direct quotes and applies to the original generation of facts. Who reported this information? If original information is only being reported by one source, most journalists feel obliged to cite that source.
- Add value: To go beyond the mere appropriation of content, aggregation should increase the value of the information by contributing something more. Often this comes by aggregating multiple reports into a single product (like the Drudge Report), or multiple links on single or related topic (like most newsletters). Sometimes it comes from adding commentary, opinion or perspective.
- Percentages matter: An aggregator should take a small amount of information and only what’s needed, driving interested readers back to the original piece.
- Create a mutually beneficial arrangement: The aggregated parties should get something out of it, like more traffic — or at the very least credit for the story or facts they generated.
The Fox reporter, Parke, covers religion for Fox’s website. He publishes three or four stories a day. A quick scan of his byline page reveals that most of his work relies on other sources, although a Fox spokesperson insisted that Parke also reports original stories. On the same day he published the story about Brantly, Parke had a story about a library volunteer in England who was banned from singing songs about God, which first appeared in the Daily Mail, and a story about Buzz Aldrin taking holy communion on the moon, which appeared in the Religion News Service. Parke did not reply to my emails.
I asked Fox why, with all their resources, they would choose to aggregate rather than do original reporting.
“We publish hundreds of stories per day in an effort to provide our vast audience with compelling content,” Berry wrote in an email. “Like other news organizations, we look for stories on credible news sites and deliver them to our readers, always taking great care to credit the original source or sources.”
It’s clear that this is about return on investment. Fox could easily have religion reporters out there turning up original stories the way Ross and his team do. But that would mean they would only get one story a day or even a week out of a reporter, not three or four. But fewer stories means a smaller audience.
Alternatively, Fox could subscribe to the Religion News Service, a wire service devoted to creating original stories about religion, as well as sharing content generated by other publications, including The Christian Chronicle. “We do not subscribe to this service,” a Fox spokesperson said by email. “We monitor them like we would any reliable news outlet and aggregate content when we find it compelling and worthy of our standards.”
When you look closely at what news organizations invest resources in — original reporting vs. simply repeating the work of others — you can get a window into what the company values.
We live in a polarized news environment that Fox News has contributed to and benefits from. As a news brand, Fox often declares its allegiance to conservative and Christian values. Against that backdrop, it’s a particularly cynical move to have a religion reporter devoted to systematically scanning your competitors and repurposing their best stories.
There’s been so much written and said about the choices that Fox News makes, this breach of ethics is relatively minor. Yet it’s a window into how the playing field in journalism is hopelessly tilted in favor of a few large news organizations that can effectively write their own rules. The scale of the injustice is practically biblical (think David and Goliath).
If you care about the reporting around faith and values, you won’t get your news from Fox or any of the other news sites that profess a dedication to stories about religion, but do little original work. Instead, go to the Religion News Service, the Catholic Reporter or Bobby Ross Jr.’s Christian Chronicle, where you’ll find journalists pursuing real stories about faith as it’s lived. When you’re there, if you see a story you find informative, hit the “donate now” button and throw Ross’ team a few bucks as a way of saying thanks.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed fox.com instead of foxnews.com as the publisher of the story. We regret the error.