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Free riding: a deeply embedded media tradition

COMMENTARY | June 22, 2009

Scholar J.H. Snider balks on hearing new media practitioners characterized as parasites or leeches and reaches deep down to expose longstanding, not very upfront behavior on the part of old media reporters and editors. (First of two parts)

By J.H. Snider

At a U.S. Senate hearing on The Future of Journalism held in May, several panelists characterized new media as “parasites,” “leeches,” and “free riders” on the expensive news gathering of the old media.  In one panelist’s colorful formulation, “High-end journalism is dying in America” because “the parasite [new media] is slowly killing the host [old media].” Representatives from leading newspaper chains, meeting under the auspices of the Newspaper Association of America, subsequently met to form an “intellectual property” committee to protect their work from new media’s predations.

But are the new media really any more parasitical than the old media?  Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? A large literature of media criticism suggests that free riding on the work of others is deeply embedded in the old media’s DNA. In an article in the Washington Journalism Review, Roy Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, begins: “Each day in American newspapers and magazines, journalists kidnap the words of other writers without attribution or shame.” Then he goes on to describe the following categories of old media free riding: “Robbing The Morgue,” “Abusing The Wires,” “Lifting From Other Newspapers And Magazines,” “Looting Press Releases,” “Hiding Collaboration In The Closet,” and “Cribbing From The Books, Scholarship, and Research of Others.” 

A survey by journalism professors Bob Steele and Jay Black found that only 40 percent of newspapers’ ethics codes even mention plagiarism, let alone define it clearly or enumerate on the many ways journalists fail to properly attribute their sources. Journalism professor Norman Lewis, in a review of the literature on journalistic attribution, concludes that “journalists are reluctant to reveal all their sources for fear of crediting competitors and betraying their dependence on borrowing.”  In Quill, the magazine for members of the Society of Professional Journalists, journalism professor Jerry Chaney writes that “making use of a competitor’s news is common in the news business,” although “usually some attempt is made to disguise it by rewriting.” 

Does such old media free riding adversely affect the quality of news?  The same economic reasoning that leads old media to claim that new media free riding is harmful should lead us to answer “yes.” As old media scholar James Hamilton writes in his book, All the News That’s Fit to Sell: “Competitors’ ability to confirm and appropriate a story once an idea is circulated reduces the incentives for journalists to spend large amounts of time on original, investigative reporting,” which “can leave stories about government undone.” 

Consider the following parasite-on-host relationships within the old media:

Broadcaster-On-Newspaper. In an article in the Annals of Political and Social Science, Professor Richard Ericson writes: “In routine news production, materials from other news outlets are lifted and reproduced verbatim without attribution. For example, many local broadcast outlets are known as rip-and-read operations that take stories from newspapers and broadcast them as simply the facts without reference to the source.” In an article in Variety lamenting the decline of newspaper journalism, staff columnist Brian Lowry argues that broadcasters’ free riding on newspapers “has long been one of broadcasting’s dirty little secrets.” Print journalists don’t like “broadcast media pilfering their stories, often without bothering to credit the source.” Lowry’s concern is not for the decline of newspapers per se but what this means for the ability of broadcasters to free ride: “Let’s face it: TV and radio stations rely on the local newspaper for most of their news. So what happens to those ‘rip and read’ broadcasters as print staffs shrivel amid the draconian layoffs strafing the newspaper industry?”

Newspaper-On-Newspaper.  Slate media critic and editor Jack Shafer, citing Joe Mullin’s blog, The Prior Art, writes: “It’s quite common for editors to ask reporters to ‘match’ a story that has been published or broadcast by a competitor by re-tracing the facts, and of the sources, of the ‘scoop.’ As long as it’s all re-reported and re-written, that’s fair game.” Nevertheless, it is “free-riding” if “the second news outlet is just publishing a do-over of the themes, sources, ideas, in the first article,” with the result that “such second-day stories could reduce the incentive to get scoops.” In his book, News at Any Cost: How journalists compromise their ethics to shape the news, journalism professor Tom  Goldstein writes: “Newspapers are stubbornly and notoriously ungenerous about giving credit to others, even though the lack of credit can easily mislead readers.” In a scholarly review of the literature on old media plagiarism, Marie Dunne White writes, “Papers are notorious for doing rewrites of articles on events they missed that had appeared in other newspapers.” In an article in the Newspaper Research Journal describing free riding in 19th and early 20th century newspapers, journalism professor Fred Fedler writes: “Journalists continued to copy one another’s stories for years because it was cheap and easy, because they were ordered to, and because it seemed necessary to survive. Few journalists expressed any guilt or shame.”

Consider, too, that old media parasitism isn’t limited to old media; it also includes old media’s information sources and sources of sources, including government and academic research. 

Old-Media-on-New-Media. Bloggers, Internet commentators, and others have become valuable sources of news for old media. For example, citizen journalists using new media have provided the first generation of reporting and commentary in closed societies such as Iran; dangerous hot spots such as Iraq during the period following the American invasion; fast-breaking natural disasters such as tsunamis, hurricanes, and flash floods; and other events not on a news beat such as a politician making a controversial remark at a routine campaign event, police brutally beating a suspect, or robbers attacking a convenience store. Even in well-covered, safe, and predictable news beats, such as coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court, bloggers such as law school professors have become valued information sources.  Nevertheless, old media have often been hesitant to attribute these low prestige sources, especially if they can easily replicate the work and claim it as their own. In his new book on blogging, Typing Politics, political communications scholar Richard Davis surveyed political journalists and found they now read political blogs as part of their daily routine and 59 percent use blogs to get news that isn’t covered elsewhere, but they only rarely cite specific blogs as news sources. 

Old Media-On-Government. Much of what passes for investigative journalism is essentially just the repackaging of investigations conducted by government watchdogs including the U.S. General Accountability Office, agency inspectors general, state attorneys general, the IRS, legislative hearings, and court documents. Often, even though the resource intensive and essential work is done by government investigators, journalists frame their stories in such a way that they take credit for the bulk of the work. Consider the recent $65 billion Madoff Ponzi-scheme investment scandal. The most important breaking news has come from government investigators, not journalists. But it is often not clear in the Madoff stories how deeply indebted the journalists are to the government investigators.

Old Media-On-Academics. Many facts and ideas contained in press accounts result from the hard work of academic and other researchers. But the old media have demonstrated minimal interest in locating and citing the sources of its facts and ideas. Instead, reporters and editors have been content to cite “credible sources,” who may have merely read others’ research and been skilled in the art of the sound bite. When one journalist won a prize from the American Association of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) for an article including substantial unattributed work from a book, his publisher explained to the prize committee that the journalist “did what most journalists do routinely with research material – weave it into the body of the story without attribution.” Journalism professor Norman Lewis found that only two of thirty-five ethics codes surveyed by ASNE state whether journalists should attribute ideas.

Old Media-On-Press-Releases. Numerous studies have found that media are highly dependent on press releases for story ideas but rarely credit those sources in their articles. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Christine Russell writes that “a dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories.” The Center for Media and Democracy studied 54 broadcast TV stations in 22 states over a period of six months and found that 48 of them did not attribute the video news releases they ran. Of the six that did, “the disclosure was fleeting and often ambiguous.” Arketi Group, a marketing and public relations firm, found that 90 percent of trade industry journalists get at least some of their story ideas from press releases. When journalists fail to attribute such sources, no harm is done to the authors of the press release, who prefer not to be attributed because it would dilute the credibility of their information. The journalists, nevertheless, are claiming credit for generating story ideas and news that were in fact generated by others.

A related but different problem is that old media have demonstrated little interest in debunking their sources’ free riding. For example, journalists typically exhibit little interest in ferreting out and reporting on the source of the public policy ideas introduced by legislators and promoted by advocates. Instead, they are generally content to give all credit for public policy innovations to the legislators and advocates only involved in the tail end of the public policy process. As a result, those skilled in the business of repackaging public policy research and ideas for policymakers and popular consumption are more likely than academics to be cited as authoritative experts and given implicit credit for the original work leading to the reported on policy outcomes.

Like a fish unaware that it is surrounded by water, many journalists complaining of new media parasitism appear to be blissfully blind to their own parasitism on sources and sources of sources. This is reflected in the widespread argument, also made at the Senate hearing, that old media represents the “first-generation” rather than the second or third generation of fact-finding and reporting. When I asked a prominent journalist about foreign correspondents’ common practice of reading obscure foreign newspapers for story ideas and then not attributing those sources in their own stories, he replied that he had never even thought of the matter.

Unfortunately, old media parasitism on sources has harmed the ability of citizens to hold their local, state, and federal governments accountable. For example, placing the journalist at the center of reports on government corruption, rather than the government entity that sometimes does most of the critical work, systematically undermines the work of those entities. As a result, very few Americans really appreciate how important the work of the government—as embodied in its checks and balances system—is to the quality of investigative journalism. If they did know, those government investigative entities would be even stronger than they currently are and much of the current debate on fixing the poor state of investigative journalism would instead focus on fixing the poor state of America’s checks and balances system, especially at the local level of government, where the crises of investigative journalism and investigative government are inextricably intertwined.  Too often today, based on a false claim of economy, local governments have weakened competing sources of government information, including government watchdogs, that are vital for keeping local government accountable. 

Similarly, by not crediting the work of academics, old media have contributed to the much-observed insularity of academic work and its irrelevance to the public policy world, especially when the government isn’t directly financing the research. Universities crave favorable publicity, as evidenced by the resources they devote to highly visible sports teams such as football and basketball. To a lesser extent, it is also evidenced by their PR offices, which send out press releases seeking to have their scholars’ work cited in the mass media. Many universities favorably consider such media recognition, often called “public service,” in their tenure decisions and in their decisions about which faculty to feature in alumni newsletters and at fundraising events. Indeed, academics quoted in high prestige press outlets often put this in both their short bios and long CVs. 

However, academics with press experience quickly learn that many journalists are not primarily interested in giving credit to the original source of their facts and ideas. Even in the rare case when journalists do track down an original source, they may decide to cite another source with a better sound bite or more impressive institutional affiliation. And even if the original source is cited, the story may be rewritten in such a way that the journalist takes credit for the academic’s key insights, such as the way certain historical facts are related, while the academic is quoted on some token point. Thus, non-profit academic research, heavily subsidized by taxpayers, tends to be skewed to win recognition among a narrow group of academic peers rather than serve our democracy’s informational needs. 

No doubt the old media are correct that bloggers, aggregators, and other new media often act as parasites on the work of the old media.  As old media titan, Robert Thompson, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, colorfully said: “There is no doubt that certain websites are best described as parasites or tech tape tapeworms,” with the result that “revenue that should be associated with the creator is not.”

Next: working to solve the problem of media parasitism

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