Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Regarding newspapers, attribution and links

This is a bit of a continuation of my post on anonymity the other day, focusing on the mainstream media's relationship with the blogosphere. One of the big stories this week was about New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd apparently lifting a paragraph [Craig Silverman, Regret The Error] from Talking Points Memo writer Josh Marshall via a shady friend (Alex Rodriguez's cousin, perhaps?) and then apologizing for it afterwards. To Dowd's credit, she's been much more apologetic than certain other plagiarists, but her inclusion of a paragraph word-for-word from a friend without any mention that it wasn't her original work is still very troubling.

The Dowd situation is just one extreme example of a larger problem, though. One of the things that's troubled me for a long time is the indifference shown by many traditional media outlets towards proper citation of others' work. A particularly egregious recent example comes from that noted bastion of journalism, the New York Post, which lifted Tony Kornheiser quotes directly from the great Dan Levy and attributed them as "Kornheiser told a blog". To be fair, they did include a link (which is much better than most papers tend to do), but "told a blog" is an incredibly stupid citation. As Levy remarked on Facebook afterwards, "Thanks! Should I refer to the story as 'reported a dying rag?'"

The Post should have at least mentioned the blog title and hopefully the author as well. It's not like it's adding a ton of words to your story, and it certainly enhances the story as well. "Told a blog" tells the reader nothing; "told Dan Levy of On The DL" gives the reader exactly where this information is coming from and allows them to explore how reputable it is.

To their credit, though, at least the Post linked to the story. This is perhaps the biggest failure of traditional newspapers in adapting to the web; they're trying to make a living in a link-based economy, but are incredibly reluctant to give out links to other sites or publications. That in turn makes bloggers more reluctant to link to and properly attribute the newspapers' material, which hurts the newspapers' traffic. It's not the old days any more, guys; there aren't many people who will read one paper and one paper only on the Internet.

A another bad example of this is the reporting of Kevin Nesgoda's piece on the Indiana Pacers possibly moving to Vancouver, which I interviewed him about yesterday. Every outlet from The Province to CTV to the Indianapolis Business Journal to Newsday picked up on Nesgoda's work, but their citations of it ranged from bad to horrible, as shown below:

Unknown Author*, >Newsday: "But a recent rumor, which started (where else?) on the Internet and has been perpetuated up north, that said Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini had expressed interest in buying the financially-troubled Indiana Pacers turns out to be bogus."

*As an aside, I really hate it when papers don't put authors' names on their stories. This is often because they don't see them as too valuable or only based on material that's already out there, but it's counter-intuitive to suggest that reports just spring into existence. Adding the name of whichever reporter or layout editor collected the information would increase accountability as well by providing someone readers could contact if they had a question about the report.

Bill Benner, Indianapolis Business Journal: "As I drove to work May 12, I listened as local talk-show radio host, WXNT-AM 1430’s Abdul Hakim-Shabazz seized on a blog report that the owner of the National Hockey League Vancouver Canucks was considering a bid to purchase the Indiana Pacers and move them to the Canadian city."

Mike Killeen, CTV: "The internet is swirling with speculation that, for the first time since 2001, Vancouver could once again be home to an NBA basketball team. An American sports website has reported that Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini has expressed interest in buying the Indiana Pacers in order to bring the team home to British Columbia."

Unknown Author, The Province: "Vancouver has been without a National Basketball Association franchise for eight seasons since the Grizzlies packed up for Memphis prior to the 2001-02 season, but the rumour mill is suggesting the city might not be a graveyard for the world's finest professional hoops league forever. The latest talk on Tuesday had Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini reportedly interested in purchasing the Indiana Pacers and moving them to GM Place, the former home of the expansion Grizzlies from 1995-96 through 2000-01.
Aquilini could not be reached for comment, but insiders, like the Internet sports site The Bleacher Report, say he has expressed an interest in bringing a second major team into a building he also owns."

There are so many failures here it's tough to know where to start. "An American sports website", CTV? There's only a couple hundred thousand of those. Benner is careful to get the radio guy's identification, but can't be bothered to do a simple Google search to attribute his source any further than just "a blog", which is even more vague than CTV's useless attribution, but less stupid than Newsday citing the entire Internet. The Province at least mentions the site involved, but anyone in the world of sports knows that Bleacher Report is just a huge collective (somewhat like a sports-only version of Blogger); citing websites instead of websites and authors is problematic enough when it's a one-author site, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the credibility of a piece if you just mention that it's from some massive entity like Bleacher Report. Would it really have killed these guys to take two seconds, cite the report properly with its author and website and throw in a link (as I did in my initial piece)?*

*By the way, I find it very interesting that most of these sites were quick to mention this report and then instantly refute it based on a vague, "not at the present time" denial from Aquilini. Of course these kinds of sensitive negotiations are going to be tough to confirm, and those involved with them aren't going to be eager to talk about them in public. Many of the reports (especially the Newsday piece) basically accused Nesgoda of unfounded rumourmongering without ever looking into his story a bit more, so I figured I'd try and track him down. His contact information was easy enough to find through links to his own site on Bleacher Report and he promptly responded to an e-mail I sent. In my mind, his answers to my follow-up questions added a lot of credibility to the report and certainly brought up some interesting extra details. It's too bad that the traditional media types left the actual journalism to the bloggers in this case.

Anyway, attribution isn't only a problem with reports based on blog information; newspapers and other sports media outlets do it to themselves as well. One of the offenders is The Associated Press, which takes time from its quixotic crusades against bloggers [Jennifer Harper, The Washington Times] to damage its own media outlets with poor reporting. The AP will rarely, if ever, cite a non-traditional site in their stories, but they (and the outlets that run their stories) don't even help traditional sites.

For example, consider this piece (from The Globe and Mail's site) on Patrick Roy: "Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy denied being offered the Colorado Avalanche's coaching job, a position currently held by Tony Granato. The Denver Post reported Monday that Roy had received an offer and was mulling it over. The Avalanche declined comment on the report, which cited anonymous league sources."

This isn't bad, but it could be much better. The piece came from the Post's Adrian Dater, a well-known name in the world of hockey blogging. Adding Dater's name to the report would have increased its credibility and let fans know where this was coming from. Moreover, "anonymous league sources" isn't terribly convincing, and certainly not as impressive as Dater's citation of "multiple NHL sources who are close to Roy". Only citing the paper is generally standard practice, but should it really be in this day and age? Why not communicate as much information as possible instead of making the readers do the work?

Most importantly, though, sites that run this report should have linked to the initial piece. Most of the people who looked at this report would be quite interested in reading what it's based on. It's still possible to do that, but without a link, it requires a Google search and probably two to three clicks. Just citing a specific newspaper is fine for print editions, but online newspaper sites could be greatly improved by adding relevant links whenever possible. Demonstrating a willingness to link to others' content also makes it much more likely that they'll return the favour. It's not traditional newspaper style, but it's how the world of the Web works, and newspapers should realize that. Every newspaper is trying to embrace the Internet these days, but many of them are still trying to make the Web play by the traditional rules. That isn't going to be successful. They'd be much better off learning a few things about the Internet and then applying them effectively instead of trying to translate the old dead-tree style seamlessly to a new medium.

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