November 20, 2013

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the Poynter Institute, has written frequently about attribution and raised the question of whether print standards are outdated when applied to digital publishers.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

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Since joining The Poynter Institute in 2007, Ellyn Angelotti has helped Poynter explore the journalistic values and the legal challenges related to new technologies, especially…
Ellyn Angelotti

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