Tuesday, August 01, 2006

That's ridiculous, according to published reports

Yesterday I wrote about my belief that journalists should embrace the agnostic link -- pointing readers to interesting content no matter where it was published.
And longtime readers of this blog know that time and time again I've complained that some B2B publishers still haven't learned to insert any links, let alone agnostic ones.
Today I want to take this a little further and voice my dismay at an even more annoying practice.

Take a look at this piece in today's Investment News. It talks about a stock index fund that may be of interest to NASCAR fans. Look closely and you'll see that none of the material in the piece appears to be based on any reporting by Investment News. Rather everything in the article is attributed to "published reports."
Now the truth of the matter is this. The story isn't based on "reports" at all. It's based on a single report -- a piece of original reporting by the New York Times' J. Alex Tarquinio.

Now think about that.
I understand that many folks in our industry are afraid to link outside their own sites. I disagree. But I understand. But I absolutely do not understand why a publication would be afraid to attribute something. Lots of us do summaries of other published material. That's a well-established and valuable service that many press outlets offer to their readers.
But what could possibly justify withholding the single most important piece of information about a summary from our readers?

Attribution is one of the ways we let our readers know how much faith they can place in a piece of information. If we publish a sentence that says "'The sky is falling,' according to a guy on the street." We don't expect to be taken seriously. But if we publish something that says "'The sky is falling,' according to the director of the U.S. Weather Service," we're letting our readers know they should start panicking now. The same is true if we publish something that says "'The sky is falling, according to the New York Times, which cited an official with the National Weather Service."
But we're not telling anyone anything when we say "The sky is falling,' according to published reports."

But there is something else worth noting about the "according to published reports" phenomenon. And it is ugly.
The simple, unavoidable fact is that the phrase "according to published reports" is often a lie. If you've read one report and then attributed your story to multiple "reports" you are misleading your audience. It's similar to interviewing one person and then masking your laziness behind the use of the phrase "according to sources." Or publishing an unedited press release and calling it an exclusive news story.
And there is no room in journalism for a lie.

(Note: I singled out Investment News in this post because the use of the phrase "according to published reports" is a veritable plague at that publication. A search for the phrase on the site yields 11670 results. A search for the phrase on Google News yields 1,230 citations...and four of the first 10 are from Investment News. A good portion of those citations actually refer to actual reports, i.e. more than one news story. And sometimes, as in this story, Investment News cites the N.Y. Times or other sources by name. But Investment News routinely uses the phrase "according to published reports" when it's just plain silly to do so. Check out this story from today, which is based on this story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution.)

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  1. It also seems unfair, in a way. If you are going to summarize others’ original reporting, where other news outlets have put their resources into getting the story, the least you can do is attribute properly.

    Even better: link to the site and if your readers are interested, they can click to it, and presumably the original source gets their share of ad revenue.

  2. It's one thing to summarize a printed story for your readers and another altogether to rewrite that story with loose attributions to "published reports" and present it as your own. That's called plagarism in any media.


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