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Practice ethical curation and attribution

One of the oldest and most hallowed forms of transparency in journalism is attribution. You link what was said to the person who said it. You cite your sources. You provide a roadmap that leads back to all the people you spoke to, the documents you read, the other articles and research that helped form your work.

As noted in the first section of this study, the digital environment enables us to take attribution to the next level by linking out to sources. This takes on even more importance when we aggregate/curate (I’ll use those terms interchangeably for this section) the work of others. This can include utilizing user-generated content from social media, or otherwise creating new works based on the gathering and combining of previously published work.

“There’s often a thin line between aggregation and theft,” cautioned Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, in a 2011 blog post.

Steve Buttry, a longtime newspaper editor, journalism teacher and recently the digital transformation editor for Digital First Media, argued in response that in fact “aggregation has a long, proud and ethical history in journalism.”

He continued:

The New York Times and Washington Post also have long histories of aggregation. In my years at various Midwestern newspapers, we reported big local and regional stories that attracted the attention of the Times, Post and other national news organizations. Facts we had reported first invariably turned up in the Times and Post stories without attribution or with vague attribution such as “local media reports.”

Certainly there is a line between responsible and transparent curation and whole appropriation. The digital age and the concept of transparency make walking that line more important than the era in which the Associated Press picked up and rewrote stories from local newspapers for redistribution to member TV, radio and print clients.

The starting point for ethical aggregation is to practice attribution. The NPR Ethics Handbook provides clear direction on the standard for attributing information:

When in doubt, err on the side of attributing — that is, make it very clear where we’ve gotten our information (or where the organization we give credit to has gotten its information). Every NPR reporter and editor should be able to immediately identify the source of any facts in our stories — and why we consider them credible. And every reader or listener should know where we got our information. ‘Media reports’ or ‘sources say’ is not good enough. Be specific.

The principle and practice of showing our work builds trust and credibility, and it’s therefore essential to clearly indicate when information comes from elsewhere. This can be done by using quotes or the blockquote function in a CMS, by citing a source by name, and by linking out whenever possible.

There is another element of common sense and respect that must be mentioned: In the process of aggregating a piece of work it’s important to ensure you don’t extract all of the value of the original piece, or quote so much of it that there’s nothing left for a person to see at the original source.

If you extract all of the key passages and information and simply rewrite them, then there is no reason for a person to follow on to the original source. Or if they do, they may question your ethics.

This was a point made by Keller in his post about the potential dangers of aggregation:

Sending readers to savor the work of others at the sites where they publish — that’s one thing. Excerpting or paraphrasing at length, so the original sources doesn’t get the traffic or the revenue, that’s something else.

Aggregation works best when you pick out something from elsewhere and add value with new insights, additional reporting or salient background and context.

I. Send them away to come back

Some organizations fail with their aggregation when they try to avoid linking out to other sources. This obscures where the information came from, and opens them up to accusations not only of a lack of transparency, but also of plagiarism or the downstream activity that some have come to call “patchwriting.”

A post by Poynter’s Kelly McBride described patchwriting: “Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material.”

By linking out to useful and credible sources, you provide a valuable service. You enable readers to learn more and dig deeper. Even if people click away from your site, the thinking goes, they are more likely to return because you provided them with what they were looking for.

One believer in send-them-away-and–they-will-come-back is Quartz, the global business website from Atlantic Media. When it launched in 2012, an article in Columbia Journalism Review criticized it for sending readers away from its site via so many outside links. Quartz senior editor Zach Seward responded in a comment on the article:

Our goals are just to cite our sources, acknowledge that there’s a whole wide world of great business reporting, and point our readers to material they should see … We’re thrilled if readers leave Quartz because we’ve pointed them to great material elsewhere because we know they’ll love us for it and come back for more.

Steve Buttry wrote that there are four key ways to provide value when aggregating content from elsewhere. Here are Buttry’s four ways to add value (reprinted with his permission):

Summarize. The best curation will provide a good overview of a story or issue, so the reader gets a basic understanding whether or not they click through to the various content you have collected.

Organize. You add value by grouping related content together: You gather news reports, blog posts, tweets, videos and other content on related issues, giving the compilation value beyond the sum of its parts. The organization within the curation adds further value: grouping the pro arguments and the con arguments or telling a story chronologically from multiple sources.

Original reporting. While curation is by its nature derived from the work of others, it doesn’t have to be just a compilation of external content. Our curators will at times fill gaps with their own reporting or by including in the curation summaries from and links to original reporting by Digital First newsrooms.

Context. Curators should place news in context, linking to background materials and to related content. Much of curators’ work focuses on the news, but you should always remember the value you can add from linking to your own archives and archives of other news organizations, Wikipedia and other reference sites. Topic pages are a helpful way to provide context, giving an overview of a running issue or a person frequently in the news, with links to earlier content.

II. Secure permissions

Too often journalists overlook the need to secure permission from people on social media to use their content.

User-generated content is not free for the taking just because it didn’t come from another news organization. Newsrooms also need to be aware of privacy and security issues related to user-generated content.

The best practice is still to reach out and secure permission to use others’ content before you embed or republish.

“We talk a lot about people’s expectation of privacy and the culture of different platforms,” said Mayer of the Missourian. “We would include a tweet in a Storify before Facebook posts, for example … We also talk about vulnerable populations, like quoting from a teenager’s tweet.”

One rule in Mayer’s newsroom is they always ask permission if they plan to take something from one social platform and move it to another. “If we’re going to make a Facebook photo album and we find an Instagram or Twitter pic [that we want to use], we will say, ‘Do you mind if we use this on Facebook?'” she said.

Permissions come down to three issues:

  1. Upholding the ethic of attributing the information and being transparent about where it came from.
  2. Dealing with members of the community in a respectful way that builds a better relationship between them and your organization.
  3. This is an emerging area of law and practice, and journalists need to be mindful of how they may expose themselves and their organization to future legal action. A study of newsroom practices related to user-generated content by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University warned that “it will not be long before an uploader takes a news organization to court for using content without permission or for failing to attribute due credit. The result of any such case would have wide-reaching implications for the news industry.”

One way to ensure proper attribution of content from Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, or YouTube is to embed it using the official code snippets provided by those networks. The terms of use for many of these platform specify that by users consent to allowing their content to be embedded.

But the best practice is still to reach out and secure permission to use others’ content before you embed or republish. This is especially important when the subject matter is sensitive, or there may be privacy or security concerns.

For example, when BuzzFeed collected tweets for a story about the #yesallwomen hashtag that sprang up in the wake of a shooting at UC Santa Barbara, the writer reached out personally to each person in order to secure permission to use their tweet. The story noted this for readers at the bottom:

Note: BuzzFeed has received permission from all those featured in this post to use their tweets.

Obstacle to Expect and Overcome: People may not know they need to ask for permission to use UGC. Pointing them to the summary of the Tow Center report is a good starting point. As with anything, this needs to be clearly and consistently communicated by leaders in the organization. To that end, create a team to develop your organization’s UGC policy for use and permissions, and hold training session to ensure everyone knows the correct procedures. It’s also useful to create a simple one-page checklist that reporters, producers and others can consult.

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