HO / MCT

Edward Wasserman: Behind a diplomatic tiff in the news business, a public duty

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 - 6:12 pm

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of The Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, Martin Baron wrote to Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism – among them, disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism. McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. The Times later acknowledged its error.

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting – generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique. It’s the overall transparency of the news process – the way that significant information comes to light – and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You might want to reward it by subscribing to it or patronizing its advertisers.

And hey, that’s how the system is supposed to work: The market is supposed to reward quality.

But if, instead, a market-dominant news organization simply appropriates or re-reports the work of the upstart, it’s concealing important realities from its own audience and denying that newbie the public recognition it deserves. That would be harmful.

A similar arrogance can hurt established media too. When online sites reprocess the day’s news without crediting their sources – as if news was some body of knowledge that magically drops into public awareness, rather than the laborious product of flesh-and-blood journalists working for real-life news organizations – they strengthen the magical thinking that supposes that news can be created without reporters, and it’s only the people who repackage their work or comment on it who deserve to be noticed and rewarded.

That’s a dangerous misconception.

True, one of the glories of digital media is the ease with which sources can be credited, thanks to the widespread use of hypertext links. But linking doesn’t eliminate the need for credit, any more than a scholar can get away with burying a pivotal intellectual obligation in a footnote.

The point is to come clean with the reader. That means being as forthright as possible in reporting the news, as any journalism student can tell you. But it also means an obligation to illuminate the process by which important realities surface into public awareness.

That’s more than a professional courtesy. It goes to the core of what journalism is for.


Edward Wasserman is dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. Read his blog at www.edwardwasserman.com.

Read more articles by Edward Wasserman



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