The New York Times’ public editor, whose job it is to concede its editorial foibles in such a way as to create the appearance of fairness while not dulling the newspaper’s shine, admitted that a story failed to do something critical to legitimate journalism:
Curtis Tate, a reporter for McClatchy News’s Washington bureau, spent a recent weekend generating spreadsheets from a database on hazardous materials for his story on the increasing amount of crude oil spilled in rail accidents.
A week later, The Times ran a broader article on the same subject, complete with photographs, requisite anecdotal lead, and big-picture sweep. It included findings that came from Mr. Tate’s research, but it did not credit McClatchy.
The excuse was that the reporter “didn’t realize that what he paraphrased was based on another news organizations’s exclusive reporting.” Because, you know, there are simply free-floating “findings” out there for anybody to use.
Content is created by someone. The whole Infinite Monkey Theorem is a conceptual idea. It never actually happened, and so if a writer uses existing content, whether numbers, ideas, facts or otherwise, it comes from someone else. Not sure who? Google it. There is no excuse.
But what of the blawgosphere? We’re not quite “legitimate,” in the sense of having a duty to play by journalism’s rules, even if we try to be legitimate otherwise. This isn’t about the wholesale theft of content, whether in the context of a copyright violation or just the abdication of integrity by taking what isn’t ours. This is about something more basic, perhaps even moralistic: give credit where due.
For many years, mainstream media got a lot of juice as a result of links from the web, from blogs. We would see a story and pick it up, run with it, comment on it, and people would find it sufficiently fascinating to go read the source article in a paper they would never otherwise know about. Do you read the Times? Or the Gate? Or the Christian Science Monitor, or USA Today, or tiny local papers no one outside of bumfuck has ever heard of? Not unless there is a reason to do so.
Yet, when a blawg picked up on a story or opinion that subsequently caught the interest of a newspaper reporter, they were happy to run with it, but there was almost never a mention of the fact that it came via a blog. Reporters saw no need to credit blogs, as they were, well, blogs. Beneath their dignity and inconsequential, tapping away with crazy eyes in bathrobes in the middle of the night.
Among many in the blawgosphere, however, it wasn’t much different. We benefit from the synergy of fellow bloggers stumbling onto stories of significance, and take it from there, providing us with fodder for content without having to do the legwork of reporting. Yet, too many write about things as if they found it, invented it, created it, when they are free-riding the coattails of those who did the heavy lifting.
Some do so blatantly. I called out the ABA Journal on twitter the other day for doing this, as it’s been a perpetual violator, when it ran a remarkably obscure story, after it appeared here. Maybe they found it elsewhere, but nowhere in the ABA Journal story does it suggest how they came upon a hyperlocal story otherwise.
The problem is they almost never credit a blog as source, even though that’s commonly their source, not to mention part of its raison d’être. It’s just a dishonest way to run a journal, failing to give credit where due. When I see a story there that demands credit to a source (never me, but another blawg with which I’m familiar), I scream at one of the editors to fix their omission. They do, but it’s a one-off fix. The institutional failure to give credit persists.
Are we any better? I try to be. I link with reckless abandon to others, regularly giving hat tips to people who turn me on to a story or blog. I link with two purposes in mind. First, to provide anyone reading with the source of my information, whether that’s a root source or a secondary source. Second, I want to give credit to whoever did the groundwork upon which I’m building. Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I think I do a fairly good job of providing links for these purposes.
Others, not so much. While the people I would call “real blawgers” tend to link to their sources just as I do, others fear attribution like the plague. They fear that their readers will go elsewhere and they will lose them. They fear that they will be revealed as unworthy, should they disclose that they didn’t “invent” whatever it is they’re writing about. They fear they will come off as inconsequential if readers realize they aren’t the center of the blawging universe.
What they really should fear is that they are puny people because of their fears, and their failure to credit others. Sometimes feelings are hurt because a friend doesn’t credit another friend for a source, which may be because they happened to find it first elsewhere (it happens, even when one is a regular reader of a blawg), or when a blawger realizes that he’s not as widely read as he might hope.
My pal, Radley Balko, who used to be a blogger but has since gone legit with the Washington Post, often writes about stories that I’ve already posted about, but without any link to me. Whether he’s too big to read SJ anymore, or SJ is too small to be worthy of a link now that he’s legit, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, he still sources his stories and facts, even if not often here.
The definition of a blawg has changed markedly, with many entering the digital world under the gross misconception that it’s a nasty billboard on a very long highway to scream “hire me!!!” While such billboards are becoming pathetically ubiquitous, they aren’t blawgs and never will be. Real blawgs link and credit. Real blawgs offer real ideas that reflect the thoughts of its writers. Real blawgs are more than a sentence and copyright violation. And real blawgs have no reason to fear attribution, because they thrive on ideas, not isolation, for any impact they have.
Anyone who fails to attribute credit to its source isn’t a blawger. He’s a puny, deceitful scoundrel, and the absence of links means he’s unworthy of your time or credit. Take a look at what you write and ask yourself whether you have a blawg or a monument to your fear.