Not For Attribution

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.

10 thoughts on “Not For Attribution

  1. bloodycarpenter

    I find it amusing that my first post to your inestimable blog is to pick up on a typo . . . ? pubic ? . . . or maybe it isn’t a typo

    1. SHG Post author

      You wrote a comment, not a post, but I do appreciate your picking up a typo. And yes, it is a typo.

      Edit: But you hurt my editor’s feelings. She slept late, and you beat her to it. I told her it wasn’t her fault, and she should sleep as late as she can.

  2. John Burgess

    Based solely on my own experience, I think it comes down more to the reporter than the institution — though institutions ought to have rules.

    Certain writers are fastidious in providing credit as well as links online or URLs if in print. Several at the NYT have treated me so. Even interviews or comments are accompanied by identification of my blog. British media seem to do a much more consistent job on this. Online big media, other than the scrapers, uniformly provide credit; smaller sites are not consistent.

    I wonder if the subject matter of a blog is related to the likelihood of citations? When I win Powerball, I might fund a study.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s changed over time. Five years ago, there was never credit. Today, it’s about 50/50. It helps to have a longitudinal perspective.

  3. Turk

    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.

    These are people who fail to appreciate that Google became the monster success that it is by sending people away from their website. That bred trust.

    It’s worth noting that the legal blogosphere had a similar discussion 5 years ago when the NYT swiped one of my stories:

    I suspect that, five years from now, we’ll still be discussing it.

  4. Molly McDonough

    Hi Scott,

    I read your post “Not for Attribution” and felt the need to respond. I’ll post this as a comment as well.

    At the Journal, we try pretty hard to credit our sources with direct links and we frequently include hat tips to news sites and blogs, probably more than just about any news organization I know.

    Often editors send news tips to reporters. Where the editors happened upon the stories is indeed sometimes lost in the mix. If we believe a credit or hat tip is due, we will add those.

    In this particular case, the story showed up for Deb Weiss in one of her custom Google News feeds. She has a sophisticated system of alerts and feeds after 6 years of legal news blogging.

    Until your “Not for Attribution” post, she didn’t even know you’d written about the subject.


    Molly McDonough
    Deputy Managing Editor
    ABA Journal

    1. SHG Post author

      [Ed. Note: Molly and I have already had a discussion about this by email.]

      I assume, because I know and believe you, that everything you say is accurate. But that leaves another huge, gaping question. Why then don’t the ABA Journal writers, this august lawyer publication that sponsors such cool things as the ABA Blawg 100, Legal Rebels, the New Normal, not read blawgs? Not mine, as I can well understand why no one at the ABA Journal would find SJ worth their time, but the rest.

      There’s a whole list, called the ABA Blawg 100. Or the Blawg 100 Hall of Fame. And a lot of other blawgs, which may not have made the list or made it every year, but deserve to and are excellent sources of in depth information and commentary? Why are blawgs unworthy of your writers’ very precious time?

      Of course, it’s also worth noting that for those of us who do read blawgs, we usually know whatever it is the ABA Journal is writing about a few days earlier. Maybe it would be in your writers’ interest to stay abreast of the legal news rather than be the caboose.

      Of course, for those lawyers who don’t read anything but the ABA Journal, you probably seem cutting edge. Maybe even Legal Rebel-y. Whatever resources your writers have “developed” to find significant news that doesn’t include blawgs, it seems to be substantially behind what us blawgers are writing about. It seems to me that they wouldn’t like always being so far behind the curve. And if the same stories interest them a week later, why not learn about them a week earlier? From actual lawyers!

      On a more serious note, I do what I can to help the blawgosphere, all the real, substantive blawgers, thrive. Why doesn’t the ABA Journal?

    2. Anon Prawf

      While Scott may be willing to believe you, I am not so kind. So this incredibly obscure story from the Columbia, Missouri, Daily Tribune, circulation 27 on a good day, showed up on Deb Weiss’ “custom google news feed” a week after it was published? A week later, it showed up? Sorry, but I don’t think so, no matter how magical Deb Weiss’ “customer google news feed.”

      No sale. Sorry.

      1. Marilou Auer

        I read, and re-read, Ms. McDonough’s comment, and I still don’t see where she directly responded to the very direct questions that were posed. Perhaps she will return and elaborate.

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