Reporters do a lot of things to earn their keep: interview public figures, comb through the fine print of public records, attend community events, hunt for stray commas, work to offer comprehensive background on the tough questions we face together.
But what we get paid for is something that should never be questioned, never be for sale.
The foundation of journalism is the trust between reporter and reader.
You trust us to bring you information that is accurate, comprehensive and timely.
Many have expressed doubts about the media — including questions that are not always unfounded.
While the vast majority of journalists are honest, hardworking professionals, the constant babble of cable news commentators and the occasional careless slip-up by an otherwise consummate reporter can raise questions.
This past weekend, an industry-wide group of journalism organizations came together to make a stand on issues that cut to the quick of our collective credibility: plagiarism and fabrication.
If trust is our stock in trade, plagiarism and fabrication break that bond, undermining the credibility of the press — not just in individual incidents, but across the profession.
As both the editor and publisher of TucsonSentinel.com and the chairman of the Local Independent Online News Publishers, I was honored to be a part of a team that worked on the response to those problems: an e-book titled "Telling the Truth and Nothing But."
I represented LION at the American Society of Copy Editors conference in St. Louis last Friday as part of the National Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication, as those organizations joined with the Associated Press Media Editors, American Society of News Editors, Canadian Association of Journalists, College Media Association, Journalism and Women Symposium, Online News Association, Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association, along with 14 news organizations and nine academic institutions to support the highest ethical standards in reporting practices.
This marked probably the first time such a diverse collection of journalism organizations has banded together to make a statement with one voice.
The solution we call for isn't a mere band-aid to be slapped on, but a comprehensive practice that can only serve to make all reporting better: attribution.
How we know what we know, where our information came from, should be made clear to readers. Attribution isn't just an add-on or way to fend off plagiarism accusations; it's a fundamental professional responsibility.
From the book, which was published by ACES with the help of the Reynolds Journalism Institute:
Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s language or work as your own. Whether it is deliberate or the result of carelessness, such appropriation should be considered unacceptable because it hides the sources of information from the audience. Every act of plagiarism betrays the public’s trust, violates the creator of the original material and diminishes the offender, our craft and our industry.
Attribution is both a professional responsibility and a good business practice. Online readers, for example, have indicated that they find reporting containing links to be more authoritative. In an era when media institutions are suspect, heeding the ethic of transparency on all platforms reinforces the position of professional journalists as credible sources of information. Moreover, clear attribution may challenge journalists to do better and deeper work, help stem the rapid spread of error in breaking-news situations and cultivate collaboration while driving competition.
Journalism itself is founded on the public’s right to know about our wider society, its institutions and its leaders. To extend this idea, the public that consumes our journalism has a right to know how we do our work, where we gathered our information, how we know what we know; that we are telling them, to the best of our ability, the whole truth and nothing but.
The hope of the group that drafted "Telling the Truth and Nothing But" is that it is not an end point, but a foundation for a conversation on best practices in reporting.
There were points of vigorous discussion during the writing of the book, especially around the concepts of "idea plagiarism" and "self plagiarism." A healthy debate about those, and the range of responses to infraction, will be an important next step. (Self plagiarism is a more severe offense in academia, when students should perform original work for every assignment. In the world of daily news reports, reusing one's carefully reported and crafted background material was seen as a beneficial practice by most editors. I'll note that much of this piece was first posted on TucsonSentinel.com.)
A portion that didn't make it into the work was one I drafted on how practices in journalism should be influenced by coding culture. I sought out comments regarding plagiarism and attribution from coders working in journalism — most notably Brian Boyer of NPR. Computer programmers and designers are routinely inspired by the work of others, and it's common to build upon bits and bytes created by another. That's how progress happens. But coders are clear and honest about the source of their work. Beyond respect for copyrights, coders include comments in their work which point to the one who originated a novel approach to a problem. Other areas of journalism could benefit from that sort of disclosure.
Among LION members, complaints are rife about original reporting being lifted, uncredited, by other news organizations. My talks with members of the plagiarism committee who drafted the e-book, and discussions at ACES, showed that our members' difficulties in that regard are not solely the province of small publishers. That sort of lifting and lack of due credit are all too common. While wholesale ripping of another's work is thankfully limited, practices that shade into the darker gray areas of plagiarism occur frequently in all segments of the industry, the committee's research showed.
That's wrong, and we all know it.
The world is more complex than a blanket "Thou shalt not steal a story" can cover, of course. But if you're relying on someone else's work in your own, the right thing to do is disclose that to your readers.
"Telling the Truth and Nothing But" offers a clear, unambiguous statement — one supported by leaders throughout the profession — that can serve as a point of reference in discussions about plagiarism: "Show your work."
As those building the future of local news, Local Independent Online News Publishers are dedicated to fostering excellence and upholding high professional standards. We support the premise that principled journalism is honest, accurate and transparent. As professional journalists, we must demand that of ourselves, lest our readers come to expect any less.
- American Copy Editors Society
- Associated Press Media Editors
- American Society of News Editors
- Canadian Association of Journalists
- College Media Association
- Journalism and Women Symposium
- Local Independent Online News Publishers
- Online News Association
- Radio Television Digital News Association
- Society of Professional Journalists
- AOL, Inc.
- The Chicago Tribune
- Daily Herald Media Group
- The Dallas Morning News
- Digital First Media
- The Los Angeles Times
- Morris Communications
- National Public Radio
- The Omaha World-Herald
- The State Journal-Register
- WGCU Public Media
- Yahoo News
- Doane College
- Media Law Center for Ethics and Access, Kent State University
- The Poynter Institute
- Scripps Howard First Amendment Center, University of Kentucky
- University of Arizona
- University of Florida
- University of Kansas
- University of Massachusetts
- Reynolds Journalism Institute, University of Missouri
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