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Taking steps to deal with media parasitism

COMMENTARY | June 27, 2009

As non-profit journalism grows in importance, donors and practitioners should adopt and enforce standards that give credit to sources instead of pilfering their ideas and riding roughshod over them. (Second 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].” But why focus only on new media parasitism rather than the larger problem of both old and new media parasitism? Why, too, primarily consider new technology to be part of the problem rather than the solution? 

Solving the problem of media parasitism is no easy task.  The technology to solve the problem at minimal cost now exists, but the incentive of media outlets and journalists to take as much credit for others’ work as they can plausibly get away with persists.  Like the drives for power, money, and sex, the drive for credit taking can only be reigned in and channeled in socially beneficial ways by well designed institutions. 

One hope to solve this incentive problem may lie with the widely expected growth of non-profit journalism. Examples of some prominent experiments in non-profit journalism include the Kaiser Family Foundation (health policy related news), the Center for Public Integrity (investigative reports on federal government ethics and efficiency), National Public Radio (general news) and VoiceOfSanDiego.org (local news in San Diego, California).

Many non-profit journalism donors, including those that fund think tanks (e.g., see The Quest to Protect Creative Policy Ideas), are likely to be as indifferent as for-profit owners when the recipients of their funds free ride on others’ work. But if media parasitism is indeed socially harmful, then we can expect that at least some do-good donors will recognize the harm and seek to mitigate it. 

Thus, socially responsible donors to the new non-profit media should commit themselves to not only fund investigative journalism, but also combat media parasitism. To change the incentives to engage in parasitic behavior, non-profit donors should encourage non-profit journalists to distinguish between important information that is derivative rather than original, and to cultivate a culture of journalistic humility and truth-telling in not only style but substance. This will be very hard to do because, as journalism professor Norm Lewis observes, the current journalistic paradigm includes a “pretense of originality” that “allows journalists to avoid acknowledging that the news they produce is less an original enterprise than an iterative repackaging of information.”

A precedent for non-profit attempts to improve attribution practices is the widespread adoption of the Creative Commons License among non-profits, including think tanks and academic institutions. This license seeks attribution but not monetary compensation for the use of non-profit research. The License reads: “You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor.” However, it has two primary failings as a solution to the problem of media parasitism. First, the impetus behind the Creative Commons License is for authors and institutions to win credit for their own work, not give credit to the work of others. As a practical matter, then, it provides no protection against plagiarism that is not already provided by copyright law. Second, copyright law covers only a small subset of plagiarism and doesn’t include major categories of plagiarism such as theft of non-obvious story ideas and news sources. Insofar as plagiarism is primarily a moral rather than legal failing, the Creative Commons License is simply irrelevant.

At a minimum, donors should not give money to any non-profit media outlet that doesn’t include clear and detailed policies concerning attribution. Since for-profit media outlets rarely provide such policies, this in itself would be a major reform in journalistic practice. The public may benefit the most if non-profit investigative journalists started giving more credit to the work of government investigators such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office, inspectors general, and state attorneys general. Such government investigators provide much of the reporting on which investigative journalism is based and should ideally be empowered to provide much more. It is remarkable that virtually all the current literature on strengthening investigative journalism, such as the encyclopedic list of public policy options contained in Free Press’s new book, Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age, ignores the critical fact that much of that journalism relies on the work of government investigators.

Donor funding priorities should also include the following:

  • Develop web-based open citation standards and software, including new types of non-intrusive links to citations, for embedding in publishing systems used by journalists and bloggers.    
  • Grant journalism prizes for the popularization of others’ research and reporting, including excellence in the use of citation technology.
  • Develop software to detect free riding within the media industry; using such software, for example, it might become as simple to detect which media outlet broke an important story as it now is for professors to use software to automate the detection of student plagiarism.
  • Develop a well-structured and standardized interface for gathering user information about media free riding; for example, those plagiarized might be willing to point this out if it was easy to do and could build reputation.  
  • Encourage media reviews to use all this new information technology to analyze and rate media output by its degree of free riding. 

Implementing these recommendations, which rely on the force of reputation rather than law, would be no cure all to the problem of media parasitism. But the fact that media outlets have historically avoided crediting sources in part because it would undermine their own fraudulent credit-taking efforts, suggests that publicly revealing free riding may give media outlets additional incentive to reduce such socially harmful behavior.   

As the government considers passing new laws to enhance the incentive of journalists to do investigative reporting, its foremost concern should be to protect First Amendment values. In particular, it shouldn’t favor the more politically powerful old media at the expense of the new media. Given the government’s long track record of doing exactly that (e.g., see The switch to digital TV--an early bailout that went awry),.this is a very serious concern.

The Senate hearing’s narrow focus on new media parasitism reflected this deeply ingrained political dynamic. It is noteworthy that Senator Kerry, the chair of the Senate hearing, and Senator Cardin, the author of The Newspaper Revitalization Act and the first witness at the hearing, have publicly lamented the parasitism of only the new media.  They have also championed the interests of the old at the expense of the new media on heavily lobbied pocketbook issues. Both, for example, voted for the huge expansion of spectrum rights for local TV broadcasters contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This grant of tens of billions of dollars worth of spectrum for an extremely inefficient and already heavily government subsidized TV distribution platform significantly slowed down the emergence of high speed, affordable, and ubiquitous mobile telecommunications services in the U.S., especially mobile broadband Internet service.  

Clearly, any efforts that Congress makes to reduce media parasitism should not discriminate against new media but seek to eliminate media parasitism for all media and throughout the entire media food chain, from those who research the facts and generate the ideas, to those who collect and translate them for a general audience in the form of news stories, and then on to those who voice their opinions on them. For example, the proposed anti-trust exemption for newspapers, allowing them to bargain collectively with new media, fails this test. This proposal is modeled after the retransmission consent rights already possessed by terrestrial, over-the-air TV broadcasters. These rights allow such broadcasters to collude when negotiating with competing broadcast platforms.

When old media advocates argue that old media—but not old media’s information sources—deserve protection from parasitism, they should be reminded that, as a practical matter, people who live in glass houses should be wary of throwing stones, and that, as a moral matter, applying a moral standard to others that one doesn’t practice oneself is in itself immoral. If old media advocates want to argue that citing original sources would be burdensome for old media and therefore shouldn’t be done, that’s a reasonable position—but only if they don’t complain when others turn around and act in the same way to them. The old media cannot have their cake and eat it, too. They must choose. And if they choose to champion policies narrowly targeted to reduce new media parasitism, they must be called out as self-serving hypocrites.  

However, we should welcome this old media hypocrisy to the extent it shines a light on the glass houses occupied by those throwing the stones. The old media have perhaps inadvertently put on the table a big problem harming the quality of the information that is democracy’s lifeblood. Moving forward, we should invite all the players to the table—not only the new and old media but also their sources—who  have been harmed by the incentive of each media player to take as much credit as they can plausibly get away with. New information technologies, while not an unmitigated blessing, also present underappreciated opportunities to curb this old media scourge. The time to seize those opportunities is now.

(Click here for the first article in this two-part series, “Free riding: a deeply embedded media tradition.”)

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