Attribution and Linking Are Essential to Transparency

MUD day 4:

If you’re a B2B journalist or a journalistically inclined content marketer, you should be faithfully following Steve Buttry’s blog. Although he’s a died-in-the-wool (UPDATE: um . . . I meant “dyed-in-the-wool”) newspaper guy, he deals frequently and insightfully with issues that also plague trade editors and reporters. A good example is from Buttry’s post on Monday, in which he offers advice on attribution. It’s an age-old issue for trade journalists that has only intensified in the online era.

Though by all means you should read his entire post, I want to cover a few of his points that particularly apply in the trade press. The first is the thorny issue of press releases. As Buttry says, the idea of a press release is that you can freely crib from it—the company that sent it to you will be perfectly happy if you do. But you may do your reader a disservice if you don’t explicitly attribute the copy to the press release.

This is particularly true of quotes within the press release. Too often editors pick up the quote and attribute it directly to the speaker, as though they had interviewed the source or attended a press briefing. But instead of “… CEO Smith said,” it should be ” … CEO Smith said in a press release.

A related issue that Buttry brings up has to do with what he calls recycled quotes. As he says, “If you didn’t hear the person say something, you should probably attribute the quote not only to the speaker but to the medium that reported it.”

A few years ago, I had an editor who handed in a story with fantastic quotes from a variety of C-level executives. Thinking he had interviewed them all, I complimented him on being able to get through to so many elusive sources. He blanched, then told me he’d taken the quotes from various sources on the Internet. Needless to say, he rewrote the story with proper attribution.

Some writers have the opposite problem, and turn guidelines into fetishes. Rather than focus their lead on the story, they focus it on the attribution. More frequently than I liked, our writers would start a story with a sentence such as “Ellis Q. Stone, Assistant Vice President for Research and Development at Mondo Widget Corp. (New Paltz, NY), said ….” That would be followed all too often by other background information before the key point of the story would be raised. As Buttry suggests, “If you start a story with attribution, consider whether the person speaking is more important to the reader than what he or she is saying.”

In theory, attribution is easier and more useful online because you can link readers to the source. In practice, though, the trade press doesn’t link nearly enough. They should do better. As Buttry argues,

Linking is an essential part of attribution in online journalism. Linking lets people see the full context of the information you are citing. Even when readers don’t click links, the fact that you are linking tells them that you are backing up what you have written, that you are attributing and showing your sources.

If you want to see some examples of this shortcoming, you only need to read through a few stories from the leading publication for the magazine industry, Folio:. In an article entitled “Editors Share Best Practices for Twitter,” for instance, you might expect at least a link to each of the Twitter pages for the four editors profiled, if not also links to their magazines. But there’s not a single link in the story.

In the new-media era of journalism, the arguably most important ethical principle is transparency. As Steve Buttry reminds us, attribution and linking are essential tools for achieving it.

Be Yourself. Just Not Your Real Self: Scripps’ Muddled Social Media Policy

If you need any confirmation that legacy publishers just don’t get social media, give the new social media policy from E.W. Scripps a glance. As summarized by Jay Rosen, the message Scripps is sending to its employees is

“Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Got it? Good! Now go out there and kick some social media ass.”

Nowhere is Scripps’ muddled thinking more evident than in the fuzzy and constantly shifting distinctions the policy makes between personal Twitter accounts and what it calls “professional” accounts. In effect, it drains the life out of both.

It’s reasonable for a company to say, “Look, if you tweet using one of our corporate or branded Twitter accounts, remember you’re speaking for us too.” But Scripps talks not about corporate or branded accounts, but about professional ones. Why? I’d guess because they want to have it both ways. They want their employees to be personal and authentic on Twitter—just not too personal or authentic.

What that means, of course, is they have to limit what their staff can think of as “personal” on their personal Twitter accounts. You can only talk about your “personal life” with “friends or others with similar interests that aren’t work related.” If you’re a sports writer, no problem, right? Your friends never want to talk about sports.

And if you happen to tweet on your personal account about something Scripps deems to be work-related, they “own the right to that work product.” So if you’re a lifestyle columnist who writes in a Scripps paper about your family, guess what? Mention your kids on your personal account and Scripps owns them.

The distinctions Scripps wants to draw get even more muddled when the policy gets into best practices. Be professional, it urges, then immediately adds that “the Internet has blurred the line between public and private, personal and professional.” But never mind that, you must always appear “reasoned, professional, and knowledgeable.” I.e., a stiff.

But then the policy advises, “make it a conversation.” You need to “be real and personable,” and to “bring in your own personality.” In other words, be yourself—just not your real self.

What Scripps doesn’t get is that you can’t have it both ways. Yes, the online world has toppled the barriers between personal and professional. If you don’t like it, you only have one choice: stay offline.

Innocent and Malignant Typos and the Case of Filloux v. Jarvis

Picture of a fainting heroine

Overdosed on typos?

As one who cares more than he should about such things, I’ve been spending way too much time today mulling over Rob O’Regan’s recent post on eMedia Vitals, “Can you spare 15 minutes in the battle against typos?”.

Like O’Regan, I suspect, I have an unhealthy sensitivity to typographical errors. To this day, I’m still suffering post-typographic stress from the discovery 27 years ago that in my first published book review, for the Nashville Tennessean, I asserted that the novel’s protagonist died from an overdose of “heroine.”

Much of the pain of that error came from the fact that it was permanent. That day’s press run was done forever. The only comfort I could take was in the knowledge that few people would read the review, fewer would notice the mistake, and all would throw the paper out a few days later.

In today’s online media, of course,  it’s easy to repair such mistakes (as I’ve done in my archived version of that fateful book review). What’s odd is how few people bother. Though O’Regan is too nice to name the writers or publications, he notes that three of the four errors he cites have yet to be corrected, several days after publication. (Me, I’m not so nice: Come on, Stefanie Botelho and Folio: magazineSilicone Valley is almost as embarrassing as heroine.)

In those rare moments when I can look at them dispassionately, I can see that most typos are innocent. Some people will be amused by Silicone Valley; no one is hurt by it.

But there’s another class of typos that, left uncorrected, suggest a subtle malignity. For the reader, they are indications that the writer’s argument might not be trustworthy. A recent example, for me, is Frédéric Filloux’s critique earlier this month of a Jeff Jarvis blog post on the status of the article in journalism.

In my opinion, Filloux simply gets it wrong. I could respect his view, however, if I thought he was actually trying to get it right. But a critical typo, uncorrected now for nearly two weeks, suggests that he isn’t trying, and worse, that he doesn’t care to. “To support his position,” Filloux writes, “Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado.”

Settler? Nope. The New York Times reporter’s last name, of course, is Stelter.

Is failing to spell Stelter’s name correctly an innocent mistake? Maybe at first (though even then it’s a sign of carelessness). But after two weeks, it starts to fester. It would undercut even the most thoughtful argument, not just Filloux’s impulsive rant.

In a subsequent attack on Jarvis’s advocacy of process journalism, Filloux says, “personally, I’d rather stick to the quest for perfection rather than embrace the celebration of the ‘process.’” I would suggest to M. Filloux that the quest for perfection begins at home.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. As Jarvis says in a comment on Filloux’s post, “publish first and correct later has *always* been the rule, except now we can publish earlier and correct sooner.”

Should you care as much as I do about typos? I don’t recommend it. To be a productive writer, you need a tolerance for innocent slip-ups. But if you care about the truth—not to mention perfection—you’ll make sure they don’t turn into malignant ones.

Do your readers want the truth?

In a compelling but slightly unnerving blog post today, Amy Gahran argues that journalists should accept the fact that people are, in many ways, psychologically wired to resist the truth. Fighting it is pointless, she says. Instead,  “to help people understand how things really are,” journalists must find ways to “to accommodate—not deny—these psychological tendencies.” But where, I worry, does that approach lead?

Gahran’s post was sparked by her reading of Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus, in particular its discussion of the various cognitive quirks that lead people to cling to misguided beliefs in spite of demonstrable facts to the contrary. There’s nothing new about these psychological phenomena, but as Farhad Manjoo argued in True Enough, the Internet can serve to reinforce them. Through the fragmentation of media, it’s easy for believers to find plenty of sources that confirm rather than challenge their ideas. While a few might relish challenging themselves intellectually, most don’t.

So for journalists, Gahran argues, facts are no longer sufficient in themselves. Somehow, in presenting those facts, you have to take into account the predilection of readers to disbelieve or ignore them. Gahran says it isn’t clear how to do that, but feels certain—and I think she’s right—that posing as a detached, uninvolved observer doesn’t work.

To put it another way, it’s not enough to be a presenter of the truth. You must be an advocate for it. You must want to make people accept it.

But I wonder: when you’re dealing with anosognosics—people who can’t recognize their own cognitive failings—is there any way to get them to accept reality without wrapping it in deception? Can you give such readers what they need without, perhaps impossibly, also giving them what they want? Does your goal of truth telling somehow imperceptibly slip into propaganda?

Faced with such questions, I tend to throw up my hands in despair and fall back on a selfish impulse: “This is my search for truth here. You can take it or leave it.”

That’s fine for me, but not for journalism. Truth-telling is transactional. As Gahran suggests, if journalists can’t find ways to get people to listen, they will have failed. The trick will be to do so without bending the truth in the process.

Why Aggregation Is Not Distasteful

What is it about aggregation that riles so many journalists? I understand the competitive motives behind the objections of legacy publishers like Rupert Murdoch and the New York Times. They don’t like the idea of anyone “harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material,” as Times editor Bill Keller wrote. But why should individual writers, who have much to gain from the exposure aggregation can provide, find it offensive?

To judge from a TABPI Twitter debate I took part in last month, one reason for some may be that they don’t understand it. After offering a few mild criticisms of Keller’s anti-aggregation editorial, I received this comeback:

“If stories were aggregated & printed to distribute, I think people would find that distasteful. Curious why Web is different.”

It takes a little while to unwind the argument of this Tweet, even more gnomic than usual for this ultraconcise medium. I doubt that the writer really objects to the authorized collecting and reprinting of articles: Reader’s Digest popularized that concept nearly a century ago, and until recently, at least, plenty of subscribers seemed to like the idea.

More likely the writer was thinking not of legitimate republication, but collecting and reprinting entire articles without permission or payment. That would indeed be distasteful; in fact, it would be theft. But in this respect, few would argue that the Web is any different. You only need to review the online outrage over the swiping of a blog post by Cooks Source last fall to see that. But this is not what aggregation is about.

When people talk approvingly of online aggregation and curation, they are referring not to copying, but citation, quotation, and commentary. The practice takes a variety of forms, but straightforward examples include Digg, TechMeme, and B2B Marketing Zone. The nearest print analog would be those dimly remembered volumes in library reference rooms that indexed articles from journals, magazines, and other periodicals. Except perhaps among library scientists, they were never best sellers, but neither were they distasteful.

Where the Web is different, of course, and the reason why aggregation has become so popular, is that unlike the print versions, you don’t have to visit your local library, fumble your way through the stacks, and hope you can find the right issue of the magazine with the story you seek. Instead, you simply click on the link and start reading.

That is a powerful difference. Any journalist who ignores or deprecates such a useful tool for sharing information with readers is doing them a disservice. It’s honest work that benefits readers and writers alike.