I have been meaning to post more of my old workshop handouts from No Train, No Gain to this blog. Unfortunately, I was prompted to post this one and another, about cheating, by a plagiarism incident at the Middletown Press. I encourage all of my Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group colleagues to read this. Attribution is one of journalism’s most serious issues. Plagiarism is inexcusable.
Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism. Attribution gives stories credibility and perspective. It tells readers how we know what we know. It also slows stories down. Effective use of attribution is a matter both of journalism ethics and of strong writing.
How do you know that? Attribution is a key ingredient in any story’s credibility. Readers are entitled to know where we got our information. If we are citing official statistics gathered by a government agency, that tells the readers something. If we are citing the contentions of an interest group or a political partisan, that tells the readers something else. If we don’t attribute our information, readers rightly wonder how we know that.
When should we attribute? Attribute any time that attribution strengthens the credibility of a story. Attribute any time you are using someone else’s words. Attribute when you are reporting information gathered by other journalists. Attribute when you are not certain of facts. Attribute statements of opinion. When you wonder whether you should attribute, you probably should attribute in some fashion.
When shouldn’t we attribute? You don’t need to attribute every fact in a story. Don’t attribute facts that the reporter observed first-hand: It was a sunny day. Don’t worry about attributing facts where the source is obvious and not particularly important and the fact is not in dispute: If you are writing about a town and you write that its population is 5,500, the Census Bureau is the implied source. However, if you are writing about the Census Bureau’s latest estimates of your community’s population, you cite the bureau because it is central to the story. Or if the town is challenging the census figure, you need to attribute the dueling estimates. If you say that an athlete is 6-foot-3, the reader understands that this comes from a team roster and that you probably didn’t actually measure the athlete’s height. If multiple sources tell you something and it is not in dispute, you can state it as a fact. However, if you are using a source’s choice of words to state an undisputed fact, you should credit that source.
Copy and paste carefully. Copying and pasting from documents and articles on the Internet is a legitimate and efficient way to conduct research. It can prevent embarrassing errors, such as dropping a “not” from a quote or typing “now” instead of “not” (or vice versa) or transposing figures in an important number. But this is also a dangerous technique to be used carefully. Sloppiness is no excuse for plagiarism. If it was ever a valid excuse, its value evaporated after the first few journalists who used it turned out to be serial plagiarists. Any time you copy and paste from a web document, a pdf, an e-mail or your own notes, be sure to type the attribution and the quotation marks in your notes or your story before you paste in the passage. Changing the pasted passages in your notes to a different font or a different color is another protection against later forgetting the source.
Be just as careful with your notes. When you’re taking notes from documents or articles, be sure to take the time to note the sources clearly and prominently. When possible, if you can’t get digital copies of the documents or articles, it’s better to get photocopies and highlight them, rather than copying passages into your notes. When you’re taking notes in interviews, you will write fast and your writing might be harder to read. Be sure to go through the notes right after an interview or event to clarify the illegible scribbles while your memory is fresh. If you are interviewing multiple characters or covering an event with multiple speakers, develop a way to distinguish the speakers in your notes. You can use initials (be sure the speakers have distinct initials). If you don’t have names of the speakers, note them by appearance (tall, blond man or woman in red dress) until you can ask their names. Attribution to the wrong person is nearly always a matter of confusing notes.
Don’t just attribute; link. Linking is an essential part of attribution in online journalism. Linking lets people see the full context of the information you are citing. Even when readers don’t click links, the fact that you are linking tells them that you are backing up what you have written, that you are attributing and showing your sources.
Attribute to press releases. The nature of the source has no bearing on whether you should attribute. You attribute for the reader, not for the source. An organization that sends out a press release would not object if you ran the press release verbatim or lifted some passages without rewriting. However, the reader should know that you are passing along information from that organization. You also should attribute material from wire stories. If you are an Associated Press member, you are entitled to use the material in AP wire stories, but you still should attribute so readers know the source. One or two mentions of the source may be enough, depending on the extent of your use. If you cite a press release once and the context makes it clear that the following paragraphs come from the same source, don’t keep repeating the source every sentence. If you’re quoting a press release or announcement verbatim, use quotation marks. And if you’re rewriting a press release, but don’t have first-hand knowledge that the information in the press release is true, you need to attribute, at least to the organization if not to the press release.
If it sounds familiar, check it out. I started this handout by saying, “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism.” As I wrote it (in 2006), I wondered whether that observation was original with me or whether I was quoting something I heard or read from some long-forgotten source. I Googled the phrase in quotes and the only hit was another journalism ethics handout that I wrote. (Now you get five hits, but four of them come from me.) That doesn’t mean it’s original. I might have heard it spoken by someone I can’t recall now. I might have read it from a source that’s not online. But a simple search in Google or another search engine will help you spot many instances of inadvertent plagiarism. You can’t know for sure whether a nicely turned phrase sprang fresh from your mind or whether you heard it or read it and filed the line, but not the source, away in the recesses of your memory. If you have doubts, you can make at least a simple search-engine check.
Attribution isn’t enough. Attribution does not absolve reporters from responsibility for the content of a story. You need to check the truth of what you are told, not simply report that someone said it. If a source tells you something, ask the source how she knows that. Consider who might be able to confirm or refute that. Consider what documents, photographs, videos or other forms of records might confirm or contradict what you have been told. As I have noted before, he-said-she-said stories do not serve journalism’s ethical standard of seeking the truth.
Some information is in the public domain. After an incident has been reported widely, at some point it enters the public domain. If you’re writing a feature story about exercise, you don’t need attribution for the fact that President Obama likes to play basketball. That’s a well-known, widely reported fact. And you don’t need attribution now to report that the Walter Reed Army Hospital was not caring adequately for injured soldiers. That fact is well established and acknowledged. But if you reported that back in 2007 after the Washington Post’s exclusive story, you needed to cite the Post. Even now, if you report much beyond the basic fact, and you didn’t gather these details yourself, you should cite the Post if that’s your source.
Writing with authority. When you can write with authority, rather than citing sources, your story has a stronger voice. Be sure, though, that your authority is genuine. You must know the facts you are reporting are indeed facts. Writing with authority must be based on personal observation and/or multiple, undisputed authoritative sources.
Attribution in leads. Attribution can weigh down a lead, adding words and distracting from the focus. Consider what the reader needs to know in the lead. Can you state the facts of the lead without attribution? Can the attribution wait until the second paragraph or later? If you do need to attribute, consider how much attribution you need. Do you need name and title in the lead? Or would a shorter reference do? If you start a story with attribution, consider whether the person speaking is more important to the reader than what he or she is saying.
Attributing to unnamed sources. When you grant confidentiality to a source, work out an accurate reference that tells the reader why you would use this source. Misleading attribution is not an acceptable way to refer to an unnamed source. You can withhold information from the reader to protect a source. But don’t mislead the reader. Judith Miller’s agreement to identify Scooter Libby as a former Capitol Hill staffer was an agreement to mislead readers. While it was accurate, that wasn’t why she would have been using him as a source. His authority as a source came from his position when she interviewed him, as the chief of staff to the vice president. “Administration official” would be accurate and vague enough to protect the source without misleading readers. Miller defended her agreement by noting that she did not write a story, so she didn’t mislead readers about him. She said she would not have used that identification in a story. But an agreement with a source to mislead your readers undermines credibility with that source (and anyone the source talks to about you). If you get the source on the record for part of an interview, but not for an important comment that you want to use, consider whether the use of the source by name in the same story with an unnamed reference is appropriate.
Get the attribution right. Attribution sometimes requires some reporting, so you note the real connections of your sources. A 2006 Columbia Journalism Review editorial noted several occasions when media outlets cited Christine Todd Whitman and Patrick Moore on the question of whether nuclear power might be a solution to global warming, without noting that both are paid spokespeople for the nuclear industry. The journalists cited Whitman as former EPA chief and Moore as a founder of Greenpeace. Beef industry staff members have doubled as spokespeople for organizations primarily focused on health and media reports too often fail to note the connection to the beef industry.
Background attribution. When you are pulling background information from historical sources, old clips of your paper or even your own personal clips, consider whether you need to attribute. If you’re reporting general factual information, probably not. If you are using verbatim passages, you should definitely attribute. If your background use falls somewhere in between, consult with an editor if you are unsure. When in doubt, attribute.
Recycled quotes. If you didn’t hear the person say something, you should probably attribute the quote not only to the speaker but to the medium that reported it. Stealing quotes from other news media used to be a pretty common practice. Oblique references to competitors as “reporters” or “news media” or “a blogger” aren’t adequate attribution. If you got your quote from a televised interview or another newspaper or a blog, cite the outlet. However, if a politician is making a televised speech or holding a televised news conference, that is not the same as an exclusive interview. That speech is public domain and you can use a quote without attribution to another medium, just as if you were there (but don’t use a dateline, unless you were there).
Narrative attribution. Attribution can disrupt the flow of a narrative, but narrative still needs attribution. Consider other ways to attribute material. A box accompanying the story can list the sources used. A more detailed sidebar can cite which sources provided which facts. You can use the web to provide interactive footnotes – click on a passage with a hyperlink and you get the attribution (or better yet, a pdf of the source document) for that passage.
Attributing ideas. Journalists share, steal and copy story ideas routinely. If you see a good story in another newspaper and do original research in your community to do a story that is similar in content but different in writing approach, you don’t need to attribute the story idea. An e-mail to the reporter acknowledging the debt might be appropriate, though. However, if the idea is so closely tied to the writing approach that your story mimics the original, perhaps an editor’s note acknowledging the origin of the idea would be appropriate. Or you can acknowledge the debt with a quote from the original story. The Golden Rule might apply here. Imagine how you’d feel if someone copied your idea. For most stories, most of us would shrug it off and recognize that we’re always stealing each other’s ideas. The fact that others are following would make us feel good about being first. But if this story is so original that any imitation would feel like a ripoff if it was yours, you probably should give credit. This also might be a situation where you would want to consult with your editor.
I originally developed this handout for the American Press Institute, when I was leading a series of ethics seminars under a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The handout originally appeared in 2006 on No Train, No Gain. I have updated it and added links. I cited this piece in a blog post last year on plagiarism.