Editorial: Not for Attribution

Here in the print (and digital) world, we try to give credit where it’s
due. If a competitor beats us on a big scoop and we’re playing catch-up
on the story, we believe in acknowledging, in plain English, that the competition had it first—even though typing that
“was previously reported in” sentence is as much
fun as a Carrot Top-Pauly Shore double bill.

Print media is mixed when it comes to how
well they cite a competitor who had a story first;
the best of them tend to bury an attribution in
the second to last paragraph of their story. The
nation’s so-called paper of record had this lesson
reinforced a decade ago when a scrappy downtown
Manhattan newspaper called The Villager
took The New York Times to task for more than two
dozen Villager stories that were followed in short
order by a similar Times story, with no attribution
given. It wasn’t plagiarism, but it sure looked as
though the Old Gray Lady was getting a bunch of
her ideas for local stories from the little weekly. A
Times editor was quoted in The Villager, saying his
employer “seemed to show an unhealthy reliance
on prior reporting in The Villager.”

TV news is a whole separate matter. How often
do you see a story on your local newscast whose
genesis clearly came from the newspaper you read
that morning? Hopefully the station added some
new material to the report. But either way, how
often does the station give credit when someone
else clearly came up with, and executed, the idea?

Stations, on occasion, will credit the paper—
especially if they happen to have a content or
marketing partnership with it. They don’t, as a
general rule, credit the station across the street.
“We cite other media to a fault,” says a news
director at one market-leading station. “But we
don’t cite other stations.”

Why is that?

“TV’s too competitive,” he admits. “We never
give them anything.”

Television news may not even be the guiltiest.
As one journalism professor tells us, “Radio is
way worse.”

Attribution is a tricky business. Keep in mind
that media ethics guru Jim Romenesko resigned
from the prestigious journalism think tank Poynter
Institute in 2011 after Poynter published
a story about “questionable attribution” in his
posts. Further clouding the matter in television,
stations often get story tips from the Associated
Press—the pooled efforts of scores of newspapers—
where no attribution is expected, or given.

Newspapers, still enjoying vast newsgathering
advantages despite heavy downsizing, continue
to set the news agenda in numerous media markets.
As one broadcast news
director sees it, another reason
not to attribute the source
of a story is that, with so little
original reporting on the air,
stations would be attributing
all day long.

In truth, the majority of viewers
don’t care who had a story first—certainly not as much as
the journalists who keep score
of their (and the competition’s)
scoops. But in the social media
world, where something that
sees first light on Twitter can
end up—unconfirmed, uncorroborated,
perhaps erroneous—
leading off the late news, local
TV news managers can start to
build up credibility with viewers, and show true
transparency, by letting them know where a tip
came from, and that they have vetted it.

“Just because another media organization reported
it doesn’t mean you have to pick it up
and run with it,” says Bob Sullivan, VP of content
at Scripps. “In the age of social media, more
and more people are just piggybacking.”

Sullivan has reason to smile these days:
Scripps stations claimed two of the four elite annual
Peabody Awards given to TV stations last
week. Where were the KMGH Denver reporters
when they found out they had won for the series
“Investigating the Fire,” about a controlled
burn by the Colorado State Forest Service that
jumped its boundaries, destroyed homes and
killed three? At the State Capitol, following up
with family members of the deceased as they
continue to seek restitution.

That’s not about aggregating the hottest news
content from your competitors. That is enterprise

No attribution required.