I am participating today in the National Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication. For the past few months I have been working with an outstanding group of colleagues on an ebook, Telling the Truth and Nothing But, intended to help journalists and newsrooms prevent plagiarism and fabrication.
Before I share my contribution from the book, I must applaud three people in particular who drove this process:
- Craig Silverman, whose Summer of Sin blog post set this summit in motion, and who contributed to the work of the book.
- Teresa Schmedding, American Copy Editors Society president, who answered Craig’s call for journalism organizations to take this issue on and invited leaders of other organizations to join ACES in the project.
- William Connolly, retired New York Times copy editor, who led the project.
I was pleased to represent the Online News Association and Digital First Media in the project and applaud the others who contributed (who are listed at the back of the book).
The project is summed up well in this passage (which I didn’t write, but wish I had; would the author please identify himself or herself?):
Our hope is that it’s sufficiently provocative and practical to prompt in every newsroom in every medium a habit of asking a question that’s been grunted by generations of grizzled editors: “Says who?”
My most notable contribution to the project was that I wrote the first draft of a section calling for a show-your-work culture that demands extensive linking in digital content (starting on Page 28 in Chapter 2). Of course, my draft included lots of links. But the ebook, released as a pdf, turned my links into boldface type that doesn’t link (the links are at the end of the book and you can click “show contents” at the bottom of each page to see the links, but it’s clunky).
To provide the links in context, and to show my work (which is the point of the section), and to promote the book, I am publishing the first draft of that section on my blog. I hope you read the whole book, and click some of the links in this draft below, and become an advocate for greater linking in your organization. This is longer than the linking section because I repeated some points that were made better in other places, and the book version is better edited, but I present it here as I wrote it:
A Show-Your-Work Culture
Ethical journalists should provide relevant links in digital stories. To the extent possible, readers and viewers should be able to examine the sources of our information, both to provide depth and to strengthen credibility.
Hyperlinks are relatively new to journalism, part of our toolbox for less than 20 years and still not broadly respected. But links provide context and depth, both important qualities in journalism. Links provide attribution, an essential practice in journalism. More important, in the context of this book, a culture of linking to relevant content may be one of the most important protections against plagiarism and fabrication. In a newsroom where journalists are expected to show their work and provide relevant links in their digital stories, the absence of links in a plagiarized or fabricated story will provide a red flag to editors and an opportunity to prevent publication of fraudulent journalism.
Many of the matters discussed in this book are issues of traditional journalism ethics, even if they are applied in new contexts. From our first days in a newsroom or journalism class, journalists of all ages have been taught to seek and report the truth, to verify facts, to attribute information we don’t know firsthand. Cases of plagiarism and fabrication result mostly from failure to follow these traditional journalism values. Linking, though, is a new tool, not even available to journalists until the web age. We haven’t done a good job yet as a profession of determining how journalism ethics apply to linking.
Journalism has never required as disciplined or detailed attribution as academia. Footnotes would be a distraction to non-academic readers, a layout nightmare in a newspaper and distracting subtitles or rapid-fire disclaimer-like end notes in broadcasting. Attribution in journalism needs to work smoothly into the writing or speaking. Linking gives journalists the opportunity to provide better attribution than footnoting in digital content.
For much of the past decade, many journalists have been arrogantly and unreasonably dismissive of bloggers (even as many journalists became bloggers), and perhaps the fact that linking quickly became an essential part of the blogging culture inhibited its adoption in the culture of journalism. In discussions among journalists, linking is dismissed by some as a courtesy, not an essential ethical practice. Adding links takes time and journalists are busy, so links get shrugged off.
Compounding the anti-link culture of much of mainstream journalism has been a culture of control. News organizations didn’t want visitors leaving their sites, so many news organizations provided only internal links to their own related content, rather than any links to the sources they used in reporting. Of course, this mindset ignored the data every news organization had proving that most visitors quickly left our sites. And it ignored the fact that a business that was getting billions of the advertising dollars that were fleeing traditional media – Google – built its business on sending visitors away. The truth is, it’s good business to link people to helpful information. As Google has shown, people keep coming back to a site that sends them away to links they find interesting.
Google also makes it good business to link to external content. Relevant links make content more attractive to search engines, which are significant contributors to the traffic of most news sites. Furthermore, linking to external content can trigger Google alerts or pingback notifications to the people responsible for those sites. They may provide reciprocal links, which send traffic your way directly as well as improving your standing in search results.
Beyond the business reasons for linking, our context here is journalism. And linking is good journalism, providing context and depth to reporting. But for our purposes here, the most important reason to advocate a culture of thorough linking is because links show our work. We need to expand on Jeff Jarvis’ principle that news organizations should do what you do best and link to the rest. We should do what we do best, link to our sources and link to the rest.
A show-your-work culture benefits journalism on two levels:
- Much of a journalist’s work involves digital research; linking to that research lends authority to the story. Skeptical readers can click the links and check the facts for themselves. Readers who don’t check the links see them and understand that they represent documentation. Either way, links bolster the public’s trust. Every journalist knows that trust is precious and that the public doesn’t trust the news media as much as most journalists deserve to be trusted.
- Journalists who provide links in their work provide documentation for their editors, building trust in the newsroom. In a show-your-work culture, the plagiarized work would stand out because the reporter would not link to the purloined source and the context would call for a link. An editor asking for the link should start the process of detecting the plagiarism before publication. Similarly, a fabricated work would lack sufficient links and the ruse should unravel as an editor asked for documentation.
Of course, print and broadcast stories cannot carry links, but nearly every print or broadcast story has a digital version. The print and broadcast versions should include sufficient attribution for those platforms and the digital version should have thorough linking. The ideal workflow for journalists would be to work initially on the heavily linked digital version, then make the adjustments necessary for print and broadcast. Though the arrogance described earlier has been used to dismiss the value of linking, the reason for traditional journalists’ failure to link in digital format is largely a workflow issue: Most journalists in traditional newsrooms produce content for print or broadcast and that content is then posted to the web. So changing to a show-your-work culture will require changes in workflow as well as attitudes and expectations.
Content management systems need updating in many newsrooms, too. Because of workflows that start in traditional media platforms, web publishing by those media organizations often that makes linking a chore and an afterthought. Media organizations and vendors should demand and develop tools that allow journalists to link easily as they work first on content for digital platforms. Newsrooms should encourage use of web-native tools such as Storify, Spundge and Publish2 that make linking simple and seamless.
The links required will vary by story. Certainly a journalist should link to all digital sources used in his or her research. You should also link to social profiles or other digital information about key people or organizations mentioned. Other links will be dictated by the details of that story: earlier coverage by your organization of the same issue or a competitor’s story that you’re following up on. Time will sometimes dictate the extent of optional linking. A breaking story might link only to sources used in research, while an enterprise story should provide extensive links for context and depth.
A culture of linking will provide more than documentation for users and a deterrent for dishonest journalists. It also will help journalists verify facts and uncover false statements, intentional or deliberate, by sources. For instance, in a show-your-work culture, a journalist would not simply have reported Manti Te’o’s claim that his girlfriend had died. A reporter would have needed a link to the obituary. Failing to find an obituary, the reporter would have dug deeper, seeking other confirmation of the woman’s death or seeking confirmation of her reported accident or her status as a Stanford alumna. Seeking links to any of those purported facts would have started to unravel the hoax.
Links are the foundation of a show-your-work culture, but the practice should extend further:
- Embeds. Journalists who quote tweets or refer to YouTube videos should embed them in stories. Journalists basing stories on hard-copy documents that can’t be linked to should scan them and use a tool such as Scribd or Document Cloud (which enables annotation as well) to embed the documents for the same reasons as we link: for context, depth and credibility.
- Data. Where stories are based on data analysis, journalists should make the databases searchable and interactive.
- Video and audio. As important as writing is to many journalists (and to readers), stories gain credibility when users hear and see sources speaking for themselves. Even if a story is primarily text, supporting video and audio clips add credibility and help drive home the points of a story. In some cases, publishing unedited audio or video files as supplemental material can add depth as well as credibility (though in some cases, light editing might be needed to remove off-the-record comments, factually incorrect statements or other inappropriate material).
- Explanatory blogs and columns. For major stories and those involving new techniques and tools, journalists should explain their work in blogs or columns. Some journalists disdain this sort of transparency as “inside baseball” content that the public won’t care about. But the public does care and a culture of showing your work in this way will deter journalists from producing work that won’t stand up to the scrutiny that explanation would require and invite. In addition, the openness demonstrated in such an approach virtually invites the public to express suspicions about content that might be plagiarized or fabricated.
The show-your-work culture of a newsroom must also be a no-excuses culture. The current newsroom faces notable stresses – learning of new skills, multi-tasking, constant deadlines and, in too many cases, shrinking staffs. None of those factors should be cited by journalists or accepted by editors and news directors as excuses for failure to attribute, link and show work. Whatever demands journalists and news staffs face, and however large or small those staffs are, we make time for what is important. Attribution and showing our work are important, and journalists and newsrooms must make the adjustments to meet these standards.
We recommend that top newsroom leaders make a show-your-work culture a top priority for their organizations and that individual journalists strive to show their work and advocate for culture changes in their newsrooms. Top editors and news directors need to lead conversations in their newsrooms about journalism ethics – not just matters of attribution and linking, but other matters of ethics such as standards for granting confidentiality to sources, conflicts of interests, accuracy and appropriate use of social media. A newsroom’s ethical culture does not stem from a written policy many journalists probably have not read in months or years. The ethical culture must grow from a continuing conversation about journalism principles and standards.
Newsrooms should not assume that journalists understand their standards for attribution, linking and other ethical matters. We recommend use of a plagiarism and attribution quiz to identify issues for newsroom training and to document that staff members understand proper attribution and the consequences of plagiarism and fabrication. Newsrooms should require or encourage freelancers and community contributors to take the quiz as well, as their ethical lapses or ignorance can reflect on an affiliated news organization.
Among the culture changes top editors and news directors should lead:
- Newsroom leaders need to tell their staffs that digital content must link to sources.
- Leaders should guide their newsrooms in adopting digital-first workflows, with digital content being repurposed for print and broadcast.
- Assigning editors need to ask for links, embeds and other supporting material when stories are submitted without them.
- Newsroom leaders should advocate with their companies for modern content management systems that will enable easy linking, embedding and use of interactive databases.
- Newsrooms should provide workshops on linking and showing work.
- Newsroom leaders should explain to the community in blogs or columns why they are showing their work and invite the community to hold the organization and its journalists accountable. The leaders should identify situations where other staff members should write posts or columns showing their work.
- When journalists commit offenses of plagiarism or fabrication, newsroom leaders must investigate, report their findings to the public and the newsroom and determine where the newsroom’s standards and processes failed. We deal at length later in this book with the issue of how to respond to ethical violations, but transparency about such failures, and determination to reform and improve must be part of the show-your-work culture.
Faculty at journalism schools should learn and teach both the ethics and the routine execution of journalists showing their work. It isn’t enough for journalism schools to teach that journalists must not plagiarize or fabricate. They need to teach journalists the importance of linking, proper attribution and showing work. These principles and techniques should be staples of undergraduate and graduate-level journalism education.
— Tom Meagher (@ultracasual) April 5, 2013
Cut and paste
I also contributed a section on cutting and pasting from the Internet, which ended up being part of the show-your-work section, though I wrote it separately:
Sloppiness does not excuse plagiarism. It’s a guilty plea, not an excuse.
Cutting and pasting blocks of text can ensure that a journalist quotes a source accurately. But journalists should cut and paste with great caution.
Journalism schools and newsrooms should teach journalists that quoted material should never be pasted into notes or stories without being designated immediately as quotes. Each journalist should decide what technique works best for him or her.
One helpful technique is to open quotation marks and add the attribution and link before you paste the text, so it lives in notes or drafts as a quote, whatever you do. Or, if you are writing in a content management system that has a block-quote function, you paste the quoted material in as a block quote (again, adding attribution and link first).
Another technique might be to highlight quoted material (again, with attribution and link) in a distinctive color such as red in notes and drafts.
Journalists are responsible for the quality, accuracy and originality of their work. Plagiarism is a potentially career-killing offense. However sloppy a journalist may be in personal habits or hygiene, you have to clean up your act when it comes to attribution.
Other plagiarism links
I have written frequently here about plagiarism (a reason, I suppose, that I was asked to participate in this project). For further reading, I share some of those links here:
I also recommend Roy Peter Clark’s thoughtful post about what isn’t plagiarism.