Home > Ethics > The thievery must stop

The thievery must stop

April 8, 2011

The “big city media” is hardly perfect. In fact, they can be pretty damn annoying sometimes but one thing can’t be said about them: they sure aren’t insecure. Community newspaper reporters could take a cue.

The problem is this: reporters who cite a “report” from another journalist in their stories, while not giving credit for those reports. I’m sorry, but if you do so, you’re just stealing another reporter’s work.

I’ll explain, but first, a couple of exceptions.

First, if more than one outlet is reporting the story, I think it’s fair to just say something like “reports that such and such is happening…” It’s still delicate territory but you’re not stealing someone’s scoop. And the fact that multiple outlets are reporting something, is important to note. Also, if every newspaper is reporting something except for you, you can’t very well be expected to list all those papers (although you might want to consider another profession).

The second reason to not name the outher outlet is if your only motive in referencing the other report is to shoot it down. This, in fact, is just doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless the misinformed report is especially egregious, there’s no reason beating the other over the head with it. They’re going to feel bad enough as is. (This goes back to Rule No. 47 of journalism: don’t be a jerkwad without reason). This rule can be abused, though. To exercise it, you or somebody you quote has to either debunk or give a stated opinion that the report isn’t true. You can’t cite the “report” then write that there’s no way to know if it’s true. You also can’t cite a “report,” then have somebody else say they don’t know if it’s true or not. In such a case, you’re both stealing and drawing attention to your lack of information. (You can always cite the report if you state the media outlet from which it came.)

That’s it, I think. If you can think of another excuse, post a comment.

Stop! Before you comment, read on.

Do not write: “I can’t very well credit the competition in my paper.” That might be true. There’s a solution for that: don’t use their reporting. It’s easy. Just don’t steal someone else’s work. If you can’t confirm their report don’t write that you can’t confirm “reports in other media” when that other media is only your direct competition. If they have something that you don’t, let them go and do a better job next time. Also, writing “other media” when you’re referring to just one other news outlet isn’t just dishonest, lazy and immoral, it’s also grammatically incorrect. “Media” is plural. If you want to steal another paper’s scoop, at least have the common sense to write “another medium is reporting.”

Why it’s wrong

We know plagiarism is wrong, but somehow we accept the theft of a major component of what we do. It’s not right. Not only that, but it’s bad journalism. We don’t report information from “sources,” unless a person asks to not be named, and has a good reason for doing so. The reason is not only because names make for better reading, it’s to prevent the gratuitous spreading of incorrect information by holding people accountable. If you cite a “report” that turns out to be false, and you’re not the one who shot it down, then you did even worse than the journalist who reported a falsity. A report from a named news source is worthy of the “report” designation. If you don’t name that news source, you can only call it a rumour, at which point you stop being a journalist and start being a paid rumourmonger.

I know this all sounds harsh, especially since many of us have been that person who cites “another media report.” But this practice is way too widespread. (It’s widespread enough so that if you’re reading this thinking that I’m reacting to something in particular that you wrote or published, you’re probably wrong.) Sure, it’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to not do. First we have to accept that, and know why, it’s wrong. Which it is. Period.

N.B. I’ve also spotted references to “a reporter from a national daily newspaper” or something like that. The vagueness only draws attention to itself and the reporter. Name the newspaper, nobody will think less of you.

  1. Andrea Klassen
    April 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    “Plus it’s wrong” is usually a pretty convincing argument, I think. Though I mostly use it to win fights about copy editing…

  2. Andrea Klassen
    April 8, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Something set you off, BCLR?

    • April 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      Nah, I just think it comes off as really petty, draws attention to itself, and that we’re better than that. Plus it’s wrong.

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