Answering my own questions since 2001

Acknowledging Antecedents, Again

Boba Fett and Cobra Commander

In August, Hollis Thomases wrote some silly link-bait with the headline “11 Reasons a 23-Year-Old Shouldn’t Run Your Social Media“. Designed to rile up millennials, it got a lot of attention online. Its share numbers–how many people have shared it on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so forth–exceed all of the current ‘Most Viewed’ stories on Inc.com. While the article is highly dubious, Ms. Thomases (I keep having to remind myself that she’s not actually three guys named Tom) and the Inc. editors are paid to generate page views. They were successful in doing so.

The Globe & Mail published an article last week by Shelley White. Its headline was “Why a 22-year-old shouldn’t be handling your social media“–very similar to the Inc.com story. Despite the Globe’s recent Wentegate controversy, there’s no whiff of plagiarism in the body of the article. White’s article is substantively better than Thomases’, in that Ms. White did actual reporting and research.

But isn’t this a little too cynical?

I emailed Derek DeCloet, Managing Editor, Report on Business Editor of the Business section at the Globe and Mail, and asked him if he was aware of the Inc. article when they assigned their story. He confirmed that they were, writing that “one of the editors saw the Inc.com article, liked it and decided we should do our own version.”

I also asked whether he felt that the Globe had any professional or ethical obligation to acknowledge the original story. He didn’t think so:

We don’t believe such an obligation exists. Nor do we believe that others are required to give us credit when they write original work that is inspired by something we have done. The free flow of ideas, in journalism and other realms, is constant – a given story may be inspired or influenced by any number of things that writers or editors have read or seen elsewhere. It is in no way unethical to write an article on a subject that someone else has previously written about.

Mr. DeCloet did acknowledge that the Globe’s headline was “too similar” to the Inc.com’s headline. “However, both headlines use a very common construction (Why X should/shouldn’t do Y) that you will find in many English-language publications. We’ve since changed our headline, thanks to your letter.”

The story is now entitled “Social media too important to be handled by an intern”. Which, in fairness, is almost certainly a less effective headline.

In our remix culture, I feel strongly that we ought to, whenever possible, acknowledge our antecedents. It would have been easy for the Globe to recognize and link to Inc. in the text of the article (“In August, Inc. asked the question…”) or in a footer at the end of the article. I know this is antithetical to the newspaper-as-authority model of most journalism. But it’s 2012, and we shouldn’t feel obligated to pretend that we develop our ideas in a vacuum, or that we’re the only source of information on a given topic.

On a related note, I also think that the Globe should note that headline change in their article. For all online articles, whether on a newspaper’s site or one like this, post-publish edits should be transparent.

Note: The Inside PR podcast discusses this topic–it’s worth a listen.

Photo by Jason Ternus

10 Responses to “Acknowledging Antecedents, Again”

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    Not linking out of sheer ignorance is bad enough, but lack of linking as a choice is despicable. A web without links is not a web.

    I guess every time a publisher neglects to link to related content, Sir Tim Berners-Lee cat cries in pain.

  2. Dave Traynor

    Good work on asking the Globe to explain. They’re wrong about the free flow of info stuff (in my opinion). Your suggestions are an easy way for them to have handled the attribution. I also agree that they should acknowledge they changed the headline. Considering how often conventional letters to the editor do not cause a change to an article, I’m surprised that they changed anything at all. Or perhaps more headlines are being changed than we realize.

  3. Judy Gombita

    I’m curious to know whether this was an online only article, or a piece that appeared both in print and on the website.

    Ideas are definitely “in the air.” The idea of junior people getting plum roles in social media (because they live and breathe the platforms, rather than having communication training or experience!) is hardly a new topic.

    To a large extent this is a puff piece or topic. Are you sure your query to the editor isn’t to a certain extent a desire for online bloggers/journalists to get greater acknowledgement and credibility?

    A recommendation to read Ryan Holiday’s book, Trust Me, I’m Lying. It got a lot of online marketers and bloggers in a flap, but I found it very educational. For example, how payment is made to “online” journalists at places like Forbes: they are paid by total Views. Objectivity, fact checking, a balanced viewpoint….not really necessary. The Business Insider is even worse, the way those people have to crank out (unsubstantiated) rumours passing as stories…..

    I hardly think this scenario even comes close to Wentegate. On the other hand, maybe you should run it by the Globe and Mail’s public editor (a position instituted in January 2012, following the long-time lead of the Toronto Star), to formulate ongoing policy in this regard, especially when it comes to the non-business/financial articles.

    Darren Reply:

    @Judy Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure whether it appeared online, or in print as well.

    Just because ideas are ‘in the air’ (headlines, however, are not) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give credit to those who devised or solidified them. This is why books have acknowledgement sections. Pixels are free, after all, so it requires little effort to cite your sources and antecedents. I ought to know, I’ve been writing online for more than 10 years, and I always try to be careful to cite my sources.

    To that end, I may once have had an inferiority complex about being a blogger (I intentionally don’t call myself an online journalist), but that’s long since gone. If you consider my previous posts on this topic (linked in the article above), you’ll find that I mostly cite examples of corporate copying or pretence-of-originality.

    I do feel strongly that all media, old or new, needs watchful and outspoken critics. That’s the role I’m trying to play with this piece.

    I wrote in my piece that “there was no whiff of plagiarism”. I wrote this during the Wentegate scandal, and felt I ought to at least acknowledge that the Globe was simultaneously facing a far more serious accusation. I did CC the Globe’s public editor on my emails to Mr. DeCloet.

  4. Andrea Coutu

    I was tempted to write a blog post and not give you any attribution (as a joke), but that’s just so far from my ethics that I could not bring myself to do it. I cannot stand it when journalists (or others) fail to provide proper attribution.

  5. bobby

    Darren

    How are you getting on in France? Might you live there indefinitely?

    bobby

  6. Judy Gombita

    Hello Darren,

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about your response quite a bit. I think in some cases it’s useful to acknowledge your antecedents, but not always. In particular, I think it’s important to keep in mind the end reader—how much does the acknowledgment contribute to his or her knowledge base and interest in the topic, in particular, wanting to read more about it? If antecedents are acknowledged, can it be done in a written format only that does not appear awkward? That’s why I asked if the article was online only—how would YOU have recommended the journalist write the article to acknowledge antecedents, without ugly URLs written out and a lot of extra verbiage that didn’t add value?

    There’s the saying that there’s only X number of stories to tell. Should book authors acknowledge if Charles Dickens or Margaret Atwood influenced their plots and style of writing within the novel? Obviously entire lifted passages would be unacceptable…but you’ve confirmed that this journalist only used the idea of Gen Y working in social media, that the sources used were different and that the conclusions reached were original. Even the general readership was targeted to Canadians; I’d deduce in particular HR leads and social media managers at Canadian-based companies.

    I was absolutely thrilled when Susan Delacourt acknowledged that my interview with Ira Basen on PR Conversations was an antecedent for her Saturday Toronto Star column, Political reporting suffering from effects of ‘churnalism’. The online version included a link to our blog. The print version did not. But both versions quoted Ira Basen, named me and PR Conversations and detailed how the interview inspired Susan to write her own unique take, focusing on political reporting. (In my later Journalist Byte column, I in turn acknowledged how influential Susan Delacourt was in getting that interview so well read. And she definitely was—this was not simply linky love.)

    By contrast, fairly recently I had an unhappy experience with the editor of a non-North American publication where one of its journalists used the imagery of sharks when it came to online crises. When I wrote my Crisis Byte: An Online Shark Attack or Fishy Little Nibbles? column back in November 2011, I was quite certain my metaphor was unique and I very carefully demonstrated how I had come up with it, plus used it throughout.

    This publication’s journalist used different case studies and “used it as a hook”—the editor’s claim—rather than throughout. The reason why my discussions with the editor were so unhappy was because he was insistent that she had NOT read my column in advance and that the imagery existed in numerous places.

    I kept asking the questions:

    1. What other articles could he or she point me to that included this imagery?
    2. If not MY column, from where did she get her inspiration?

    I never did get answers to either question. Instead, I was insulted and told they “had never heard of you.”

    At one time I was a subscriber to its print publication. Now I don’t even get the online updates—I unsubscribed immediately following the exchange. Ironically, one part of the name includes the word “ethical.”

    When I write I do acknowledge books, articles or posts that have inspired me—often I cite from them and include links. But what I write is almost always original concepts, which I’ve derived from numerous of things I’ve read and discussed, thought deeply about and synthesized. For example, my Binary Byte that publishes tomorrow makes use of posts from Stephen Abbott, Augie Ray and McDonald’s of Canada’s five-month campaign…including coverage of it by the Globe and Mail’s Susan Krashinsky.

    But if I wrote about the suitability of Gen Y staff automatically being given social media roles, it’s unlikely that I would cite any of the articles that you’ve blogged about. The reason for this is that I would be giving it an entirely different take than these two had done…or any of the hundreds of other articles on the topic out there.

    Finally, I’m wondering if you were familiar with the Globe and Mail’s Catalyst program, whereby selected individuals play an internal role in advising the paper about current issues of interest, as well as suggesting article ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story was suggested by a Catalyst community member.

    And hey ho, now the Globe has a paywall. Will a story like this one be worth paying for?! ;-)

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