Anatomy of a (stolen) scoop

by Andy Dehnart
December 21, 2006

The media has a love/hate relationship with bloggers, some of whom inexcusably steal content from journalists. So why are journalists stealing content from bloggers?

Last Friday, I was listening to the same radio show I listen to every morning, when 'NSync's Joey Fatone called in and, during the course of a long conversation, mentioned that he was going to be on Dancing with the Stars.

The popular reality show's fourth-season cast has not yet been announced, although speculation is ongoing, so I typed furiously as Fatone spoke. Although I was only able to record a few fragmented quotations, I posted a story, citing the Monsters in the Morning radio show and quoting Fatone.

The New York Post picked up the story Monday morning, crediting my site, reality blurred. Later that day, the Associated Press ran a similar story, but one that did not cite my work. Considering that Real Radio is a popular Orlando FM talk station, and the Monsters morning show is syndicated worldwide on XM Satellite radio, I did not, of course, have any sort of exclusive scoop. In fact, I was surprised that no one else picked up the story independently before Monday.

An F for plagiarism
The problem, however, is that the AP's story quoted Fatone, and all of those quotations were copied word for word from my story. Anyone listening to a recording of the show or taking their own notes would undoubtedly have transcribed different sentences and phrases, or perhaps punctuated them differently, never mind that human speech is complex and hard to transcribe verbatim. But the AP's quotations were identical to mine, and even more appallingly, even their transitions mimicked my own.

For example, quoting Fatone, I wrote:
"I like doing it because it's challenging," adding that he wasn't looking forward to the wardrobe. "Can you imagine me wearing those stupid tuxes?"
The AP wrote:
"I like doing it because it's challenging," Fatone said of dancing. He added: "Can you imagine me wearing those stupid tuxes?"
In the college first-year English classes I teach, I'd immediately fail a student essay that contained those lines. The AP clearly copied my quotations and my story's structure without attribution, and that's a clear case of plagiarism.

The pathetic part is, the writer (the story was unbylined, and I've been unsuccessful so far in tracking down the reporter)+ could have easily solved this with two words: "realityblurred.com reported." Two words.

E! Online ran a similar story. Its quotations were slightly different, perhaps because their reporter, Natalie Finn (who has yet to respond to an e.mail message), retrieved them from a different source+. Still, the only parts of the long interview she quotes were the exact same parts that I did:
... said that he "likes doing it because it's challenging. "But can you imagine me wearing those stupid tuxes?" he said.
UPI distributed a story that used E! Online's version of the quotation (the "But" appended to the last sentence was not in my version), but without giving E! credit. (It also had an "Orlando, FL" dateline.) Each news organization, it seems, borrows from the previous source, and then takes credit as if it was their own reporting.

Sometimes this can be inadvertent or just a result of rushing a story to the public. The one quotation I used but the AP didn't include appeared in the online blog of the Orlando Sentinel's TV critic, Hal Boedeker, on Saturday evening. Because he's based in Orlando, like the radio station, I thought his blog might have been the source of the AP's information. However, once I asked him about his source, he edited both the original post and a follow-up post to credit reality blurred. An editor at the Sentinel "Googled and found your item that Fatone had appeared on Real Radio on Friday," Boedeker told me. I'm grateful for both the revision and his apology, and for the additional original reporting he included in his posts.

That's the way good journalists follow up on stories: They tell the story more completely by augmenting earlier, attributed information with their own research and reporting.

An ongoing problem
All of may seem rather trival, except this kind of unattributed usage of blogs content happens regularly. A piece Entertainment Weekly posted on their web site on Dec. 7 and included in that week's issue used, without attribution, quotations from an interview posted by another blogger.

That blogger also happens to be the TV critic for The Chicago Tribune. Maureen Ryan posted an extensive, exclusive interview with popular Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn on Nov. 17, and a number of bloggers, including me, linked to her piece, in part because it broke the news that Gunn had yet to be signed for a fourth season of the show. Almost three weeks later, the magazine quoted Project Runway's ever-popular mentor Tim Gunn:
''Parsons,'' he has said, ''pays my bills.''
The "has said" implies that Gunn says that all the time, but in fact, he said it only to Ryan. While that quotation was obviously taken from her piece, Ryan told me, "It wasn't even just that one quote, there were several supporting facts; if they didn't talk to Tim Gunn, I don't know how they got them."

As with my Dancing with the Stars story, the unattributed version then became worldwide news. "To see it get picked up all over the world but not attributed to me was difficult," Ryan said. Those blogs or news organizations who do attribute then tend credit the wrong source, because the story they're working from gives no other information.

The magazine's writer told Ryan that attribution was originally in the piece but was removed late in the editing process by the research department, which was apparently unclear about the nature of the interview. Still, as Ryan said, "If I'm the only person who disseminated that information, I don't see what the problem is in attributing it to me."

Although Ryan spoke to the writer, Nisha Gopalan, Entertainment Weekly has still not corrected the online version of the story, which is exceptionally simple to do. The Sentinel's Boedeker added attribution to his post, and in no way did that weaken his piece. In fact, it made it stronger. And Entertainment Weekly's own PopWatch blog, among many others, linked to Ryan's piece when it was originally published.

Ignoring the code
The Society for Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics insists that journalists must "identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."

The public is denied that information, however, when news organization such as Entertainment Weekly neglect to include the source of their information. The content of both of these stories is, of course, somewhat trivial compared to other news stories. But if certain reporters and publications are so unwilling to attribute in these situations, where it's exceptionally simple to do so, how can reporters expect the public to trust the source of their information on much larger pieces?

SPJ's Code of Ethics also insists that journalists must "never plagiarize," and the AP's usage of my exact quotations plus similar phrasing around those quotations is a clear example of plagiarism, which on its most basic level is using someone else's work (words or ideas) without attribution.

More significantly, the Code of Ethics requires journalists to "abide by the same high standards to which they hold others." It's unacceptable for bloggers to steal content from the media or others and claim it as their own, but it's equally unacceptable for people who call themselves journalists to do the same. | 20 December 2006

+ Update: After publishing this essay yesterday, I heard from both E! Online and the AP. First, E!'s Finn contacted me late Wednesday and wrote, "The differences were just the result of some misplaced quote marks. I think you'll see it all matches up with AP now." The story was indeed updated, although it does not credit the AP as the source of its quotations, and it still does not mention that those quotations all originally came from my story.

The AP's entertainment editor wrote and thanked me for pointing out the "attribution error," and said a clarification was sent out over the wire. Here is that clarification:
In a Dec. 18 story, The Associated Press quoted Joey Fatone as telling a Florida radio station he'd like to appear on "Dancing With the Stars." The story should have noted that Fatone's interest was first reported by the Web site Realityblur.com.
That's nice, although "first reported" glosses over what actually happened. And, of course, if the irony in the clarification isn't apparent, here's what went out on the wire a few hours later:
In a Dec. 18 story, The Associated Press quoted Joey Fatone as telling a Florida radio station he'd like to appear on "Dancing With the Stars." The story should have noted that Fatone's interest was first reported by the Web site Realityblurred.com. (Corrects name of web site. Members who used BC-People-Joey Fatone of Dec. 18 may wish to use the following.)