Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Transparency Shield

In Decatur, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution continued scaling back local operations, hyperlocals such as DecaturMetro and inDecatur began filling the gaps left behind. Inevitably, the nascent exploration of areas long held by the media giant led to conflict. Discussions of what constituted journalism and appropriate credit spawned spirited discussions across the town square of the new media community.

70 miles away, Dr. Lee Becker, a professor of journalism and proprietor of the online site Oconee County Observations, inadvertently provided a perfect case study of the clash between traditional and new media.

His piece"Oconee Officials Met Secretly To Discuss Assembly Session" set out to expose possible shenanigans by his hometown politicians, but what followed was an easily traceable timeline of a typical old/new media convergence and then divergence.

On 5-23, Becker published his story about potential open meetings violations by the Oconee County Commission. Given his background and the thoroughness of the research and sourcing, there can be little doubt the piece should be considered journalism. However, what happened next raised familiar ethical and philosophical questions.

The next day, Athens Banner Herald staff writer Adam Thompson picked up Becker's story and published it on his ABH blog. To his credit, Thompson attributed the origin of the story to Becker's site.

One week later, on June 1, the ABH published a Thompson article on the subject in both its online and print editions. Neither Becker nor his site are mentioned.

The following day, the ABH published an editorial which referred only to the previous day's Thompson article. Athough the editorial board did not specifically claim the paper broke the story, viewed in the vacuum of the print and online editions, the implication cannot be denied.

There is little doubt the genesis of Thompson's story and the editorial follow-up was the piece published by Dr. Becker. As the story passed further from its origin and deeper into the traditional editorial process, the opaqueness of the original source grew.

Amid the assaults on the newspaper industry, one powerful shield which frequently remains unused is transparency. People simply do not understand how newspapers work and this lack of knowledge creates an atmosphere where readers are easy prey for those who peddle in myths of bias and lack of credibility.

When, where and how Becker should have been credited should be debated. However, it is clear the Athens Banner Herald missed an opportunity to use the transparency shield as a tool to give its readers a complete vision of this particular story and glimpse at how all stories emerge. A beneficial by-product would have been appropriate credit for Dr. Becker and possibly a strengthening of the perception of the new media warrior and the traditional media guardian sharing the role of protectors of democracy.

Instead, we are left with the continued friction and our separate pursuits of the solutions we all crave.

23 comments:

Catherine said...

This is such a terrific example of what we've all been talking about lo these months (good lord, it's years now).

Rusty said...

One mistake I believe us sensitive/touchy/whatever new media partisans frequently make is to assume that this lack of citing sources applies specifically to us. Like they're skipping citing blogs because they're small time and they think they can walk all over us and we won't do anything about it except piss and moan. I'm not saying you're doing this here, but I think it could be read that way, and I think there are people who think that way.

Having worked at a place that could arguably be called a newspaper, I'll tell you we found stuff on the AP Wire all the frickin' time that we never credited to AP, as one example. When I was there, the AJC didn't credit TV News, Creative Loafing or the weekly papers. WSB didn't credit WXIA. Etc. etc. etc.

So it's not specifically that Big Media doesn't credit New Media, so much as Big Media doesn't (or at least didn't for a long time) credit anybody.

Our paper even made us refer to the AJC as "an Atlanta newspaper" when it was unavoidable to cite it as a source.

I guess those policies came from competitive pressure and philosophies that link exchange was detrimental. Why send someone outside your outlet? That theory has been mostly discredited now, and they're starting to open up, albeit at a glacial pace.

I do have to commend the AJC for its VERY recent efforts to do a better job citing sources.

lazermike said...

Actually, I think it's a non-event. I worked for years in newspapers with competitors, and it's a rare event that one paper would credit another paper with breaking or being first to a story. When I was in the Gwinnett AJC bureau, for example, I would get stories one day that would show up the next day in the Gwinnett Daily News (with original reporting by the GDN) with no mention that those facts appeared first in the AJC. When the opposite would happen, we wouldn't credit GDN, either. And you see this stuff all the time: a local paper breaks something that is later picked up by a regional paper (or the Times), or WSB gets something that's turned into a newspaper story, or something runs in the Loaf that's picked up by WABE, or whatever. The rule is, once you collect and confirm the information yourself, you don't say it ran somewhere first. (This may explain why it was properly credited on the ABH website, when perhaps the Athens reporter used the Oconee material but did no reporting on his own, which he presumably did for his story a week later.)

I understand this may seem wrong to people. Hell, it may be wrong. But making it an old media/new media thing, I think, is inaccurate.

lazermike said...

What Rusty said.

Catherine said...

I'm sure that Rusty and lazermike are correct, but it seems to me that with the increasingly tough times facing newspapers, it would be in the newspapers best interest to create a friendly and cooperative relationship (that includes some link-love) with sources like Oconee County Observations or other citizen journalism sources. In yesterdays post, Becker says:

"In the five days that followed my May 23 posting, 295 unique visitors went to my blog to read the story. I posted a new story on the sixth day.

That 295 is a far cry from the potential readers of a story in the Banner-Herald, which has an audited weekday circulation of 3,800, or of the Enterprise, which has an unaudited circulation of 4,000.

That was the reason I sent the tip to the Banner-Herald and the Enterprise. I wanted to give the Thompson and Giles time to get the story into their papers."

I believe it is a new idea to acknowledge a source - but I suggest that it's time to find that bit of courtesy.

Rusty said...

Catherine,
I 100 percent agree with that.

I hope my comment wasn't perceived as an attempt to derail from grift's valid point. Media outlets of all stripes should adopt an ethic of citing each other's work instead of pretending like it doesn't exist, which readers long ago (and perhaps always have) saw through for the bullshit it is.

Lucid Idiocy said...

It's pretty unusual for one media outlet to note when another had the story first. I happens, but it's the exception, rather than the rule.

I'm sure you're well aware that many of the stories you see on the local evening news were in the local paper that morning. So long as the evening news folks do their own reporting on the story, the fact that they heard about it from the paper isn't particularly relevant.

I don't see why a blog should be treated any differently.

In many ways, blogs are the new tipsters. The vigilant citizen who used to call the newspaper can now blog about it. Sometime's it's relevant to say that's where a story came from, sometime's it's not.

griftdrift said...

Well Mike, I obviously disagree.

I am well aware that traditional media do not always credit other sources. I certainly have heard the Loafers bitch and moan enough about the AJC stealing their stories. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's been discussed on these very pages.

I'm not going to recount that sad fact every time I write about this subject. I chose this particular incident because as I said its a convergence of my world and their world.

And I do think it's wrong.

As I said and Catherine continued, the papers are doing themselves a disservice by clinging to these antiquated habits. But also I believe everyone misses why this is such an irritant to new media writers.

We hear about the sacrosant "editorial process" ad nauseam. But what traditional media seems to not understand is in the online world credit is as sacred to us as the editorial process is in the real world is to them. You take credit for something and don't link to the source? At best you will be shunned.

The bottom line is both sides need to learn from each other. We need some sort of editorial process (but please stop trying to force us to take yours) and the old media needs to start crediting. It simply makes us both better.

Anonymous said...

I don't really feel like wading into this conversation, but I do have one minor correction: the ABH's circulation is way higher than 3,800. More like 30,000.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, forgot to sign my name. Blake Aued

Anonymous said...

I'm write, you're wrong.

Debate settled.

griftdrift said...

You probably need to check with your copy editor about that last comment.

C'mon Blake! Jump in the pool. Its warm from all the pee. You know you want to.

Since we're talking about transparency and sourcing, I'm going to provide my own. Maybe it will help your context. Maybe it won't.

I received the tip on the Becker/ABH pieces from a journalist who was bothered by what transpired. (I won't name the journalist due to possible employment repercussions). This was not a case of griftdrift finds an isolated incident, jumps up on his soapbox so he can bash the media again.

Lucid Idiocy said...

Where does this pat-on-the-back, gotta-give-props mentality end?

For example: The Ray City mayor is going to run for governor. I found out about it because Jim Galloway linked to a Valdosta Daily Times story. I'm going to do a little piece for The Macon Telegraph that will quote The Times, not because I want to give them credit, but because I don't feel the need to call the mayor myself, since The Times has already done the work.

But I don't read The Valdosta Daily Times. Should I, in the newspaper, say "oh, and I found out about it from Jim Galloway?" What if I saw it first on Peach Pundit, which heard it from Galloway, which heard it from The Valdosta Daily Times?

griftdrift said...

Travis. That's a tough question and a good one.

But I really see a difference between the crazy Ray City Mayor and the Oconee story. But I'm probably not going to express it well so maybe someone else will help.

The Crazy Ray City Mayor story is sort of a one off "hey look at that crazy guy" kind of story. But even so you are going to credit the Time which is the origin of the story.

With the Oconee story, you have a lead story which will probably lead to additional investigation and stories and has already generated an editorial board response. And it's all appears to have originated from the investigation by Dr. Becker. This is a layman's view but how can you not credit that?

What I would really like to see is more of what the AJC has done. With in depth pieces such as the recent Cameron McWhirter pieces on John Oxendine they are putting a sidebar that explains exactly how they got the story.

If the ABH had done something like this they could have explained who Dr. Becker is, what his credentials are and how he investigated. You can't tell me that wouldn't assist your readers both in understanding the story better and understanding better how the paper works.

I'm not saying do that for every story but I think you can see the difference. And I promise you people not in the industry will see the difference too.

As Rusty so eloquently pointed out, the readers see through the b.s. This type of transparency deflects the b.s. and makes peace with a lot of people.

lazermike said...

Well, aside from being a story-stealing AJCer, I've also been a Loafer bitching about the AJC stealing stories. But so it goes.

I think what is really at play here is the disparity in scope of a big media source with a smaller one. The AJC gets story ideas from the Loaf because it feels that even if it ran in the Loaf, lots and lots of AJC readers never saw it (and, I guess, because the AJC wants to be the paper of record and feels it has to contain certain information). The Loaf doesn't do folos of AJC stories because, well, everyone's already seen it.

That disparity is I think what's at play here. The problem isn't one media source not crediting another after doing its own original reporting, it's that this one-man shop did what the ABH should have been doing all along, then the Athens paper rode the little guy's back to a story that thousands wil read and never know about the guy who did the work originally. I think that's what seems unfair, and maybe it is -- I know at the Loaf we felt like detectives on a cop show when the feds swoop in and take their collar.

By the way, I like the new "How We Got The Story" feature in the AJC, too. But I'm not sure this is a story that warranted it.

griftdrift said...

"The problem isn't one media source not crediting another after doing its own original reporting, it's that this one-man shop did what the ABH should have been doing all along, then the Athens paper rode the little guy's back to a story that thousands wil read and never know about the guy who did the work originally."

Bingo!

And I think it would be a great discussion to have as to where you draw the line at crediting or using the "How We Got This Story" sidebar.

A while back Thomas Wheatley and I discussed doing a journalism town hall similar to what Chicago did earlier this year. Then we both got busy and it was shuffled to the side. Maybe it's time to resurrect that idea.

There are so many great topics to discuss and even though we might disagree and might get a little ugly with each other, I think more often than not as we did here, we're really not that far apart on many things.

lazermike said...

Bam! It only took me until Comment 15!

Anonymous said...

OK, in defense of Adam, I am going to point out that if you lived in Athens, you would know that Lee Becker has a bit of a reputation as a gadfly with a bone to pick. Quoting him would not exactly win you any credibility points, either.

Personally, if I use information in a story that I did not gather myself, I attribute it to the publication that did gather the information. "Karen Handel is a fat hippo, John Oxendine told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday." It's giving credit where credit is due, but also covering your butt so if it turns out to be wrong, readers know who to blame.

If I run down the info on my own, I am not going to say where I first heard it from because it's irrelevant to the reader.

For example, when the AP picks up one of my stories and rewrites it, I don't get a byline even though I did most of the work. It runs under an AP byline. By the logic that says Adam should have mentioned Becker in his story, the AP should mention me in the stories that I reported.

On the other hand, it infuriates print journalists when radio and TV news just read our stories over the air and act like it's theirs, which happens every day.

Blake Aued

griftdrift said...

Ahhhh the AP, our old friend.

Blake, we've been down this road before and I honestly believe we just have a knowledge gap here that we can't bridge. This maybe something where you just have to tell me that its something I don't deal with daily and therefore I don't understand it. and you'd probably be right.

But if someone took my work, rewrote it and didn't give me any credit, I would be furious. As far as I know newspapers are the only industry where not only is this the norm but it's considered morally acceptable. Hell, if you did that to a screenplay, you'd have 100 entertainment lawyers beating down doors to sue the bejezeus out of someone!

Also, you point out newspaper journalists have their own pain point. By the way I knew it was the TV people. So, you are not immune to the consternation others at times feel.

My bottom line is there has to be a way to appropriately credit people for their work and if we all agree that this is the right thing to do, we'll all move the discussion of finding that method forward.

To me, that type of openness and transparency would benefit everyone -newspaper people, tv people, radio people, bloggers, podcasters and most importantly the consumers of our content.

There has to be a way.

And a footnote - I didn't write this with the intention of criticizing Adam. I always try to be careful about criticizing staff writers as I admire them greatly. My criticism is directed at what I perceive to be the culture and the process.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think the model of the future for both the pros and the amateurs is going to be a combination of original reporting and aggregation.

You would not believe the amount of time reporters waste matching someone else's story because an editor wants it under a local byline. In our diminished state we need to be more efficient, swallow our pride and just use the other guy's stuff (with credit, of course).

By the way, since this is a conversation about ethics, shouldn't you have tried to contact Adam to get to the bottom of this before posting something?

Blake Aued

Jim Thompson said...

Grift,
Just to briefly weigh in as discussion here seems to be winding down, let me say that I appreciate your thoughtful criticism. I think it's valuable for a couple of reasons. First, it provides some insight into how 'old media' are perceived outside the newsroom walls. Second, at least as far as I'm concerned, it keeps some of us 'old media' types on our toes.

As far as the debate over the Becker attribution goes, I don't have any problem with providing a brief mention of the way a story winds its way to the editorial board's attention, and probably should have done so in this case.

In my defense, I've previously given attribution to Becker in editorials. See http://onlineathens.com/stories/011008/opinion_2008011009.shtml and http://onlineathens.com/stories/013008/opinion_20080130086.shtml.

Have a great weekend!

griftdrift said...

Blake, that's a fair point. I shoud have.

Jim, thanks for stopping by. I was hoping you would.

Lucid Idiocy said...

"With the Oconee story, you have a lead story which will probably lead to additional investigation and stories and has already generated an editorial board response. And it's all appears to have originated from the investigation by Dr. Becker. This is a layman's view but how can you not credit that?"

So what you're saying is I should pay attention to the actual example that kicks off the discussion instead of just the general idea around it.

You'd be amazed how many reporters have listening problems.

ABH/DN should have mentioned it. Jim Thompson, obviously agrees, and is pretty darn good journo from what I remember long ago in Athens.