Credit where credit is due

The ongoing debate over fair use ranges AP’s attacks on aggregators to the question of when and how bloggers credit the original sources of stories. A parallel complaint from the blogosphere focuses on how the legacy media pick up stories or ideas from blogs, with out giving any credit to the source.

Recently, for example, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab reported:

The Post prohibits crediting blogs and other competitors for scoops, according to the reporter, Alex Ginsberg, who noted the zoning violation two weeks after it was reported by the blogger, who calls herself Miss Heather. “Post policy prevented me from crediting you in print,” Ginsberg wrote in a gracious comment on the blog. “Allow me to do so now. You did a fantastic reporting job. All I had to do was follow your steps (and make a few extra phone calls).”

A Post spokesperson, Suzi Halpin, says the Post does credit bloggers “all the time.” I don’t read the Post, but I don’t see local news media crediting bloggers or other new media very often.

As the editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I don’t recall any time that the local legacy media credited us in print, even when we clearly broke stories before they did. In a way, credit for breaking stories beside the point – part of our mission is to tell under-reported stories and cover under-reported communities, and to alert the rest of the media to these stories. We want them to follow up — with their far greater resources — and to deepen and broaden the coverage.

In August, Chris Ahearn of Thomson Reuters suggested that we need some sensible guidelines for linking and attribution, while acknowledging the value to news producers and consumers of the “link economy.” As an overall guideline, he proposes “a general agreement among community members to treat others’ content, business and ideas with the same respect you would want them to treat yours.”

Colombia J-School blogger C.W. Anderson got more specific in an article asking “What would fair use look like in an online era?” Anderson points out that “the digital information world has its own ethical standards and best practices, practices that may not be written down but have emerged out of the internet’s own practices and history.” Here’s part of what he has to say about the importance of linking:

It should, by 2009, go without saying that any article making use of information read, cited, discussed, or originated elsewhere should clearly link back to that information. This is kindergarten-level internet protocol. …  (I should note, at this point, that this would probably do more to show traditional, non-linking news orgs are violation of fair use than bloggers, but, hey, you get what you ask for if you open this can of worms.)

If we set linking as a baseline, we can go one step further: of what quality is the link? There’s a big difference between an article that links to its source five paragraphs in, for example, and those that do so in the first paragraph.

In my own blogging, I try to credit and link to sources as explicitly as possible — “reports the New York Times” or “says MPR” or “according to BBC.” I also try to keep the links closely connected to the quotes or content of that source, as most of my blogs have multiple sources. That’s easier in a blog post, harder in Twitter, where tweets can end up with more attribution than content. (“Whoa.  @Anderson4Gov says @SeifertMN doesn’t have the leadership experience to be #mngov.   http://twurl.nl/fequ5v”)

NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen talks about links in a way that goes beyond questions of fair use and attribution. According to Rosen:

The link  .. is actually building out the potential of the web to link people … When we link, we are expressing the ethic of the web, which is  to connect people and knowledge.

Bloggers have devoted a lot of thought to the ethical standards of blogging and the ethical requirements for linking. Maybe it’s time for the legacy media to consider whether these standards have application for their own practice.

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