On the Ethics of Sourcing For Bloggers and Journalists

Radley Balko used to piss me off. Back in my early days in the blogosphere, I sent him a few links to stories I thought might interest him. He then mentioned those stories in his Agitator blog, but didn’t credit me for sending him the links. Of course, I had no way of knowing for sure if he was using the links I sent or if it was just coincidence, but it happened often enough to make me suspicious.

Now Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice refers us to a case where the New York Times put out a story about an issue first raised by Eric Turkewitz in his blog.

Nowhere does the New York Times mention that Turk was the source of its “news”.  At least when Turk uses the Times as a source, he links to the original story.  The Times doesn’t return the favor.

Not only does the Times free-ride off Turkewitz, but it does so without acknowledgment that some lowly blawger came up with news that they didn’t, and that they had to steal from a blawger to get the story.

Most of us in the blawgosphere, and I include myself in this group, go to great lengths to give credit to the source of our posts, whether it’s a hat tip to a reader who sent a lead or the newspaper that carried the story or another blog that brought it to the fore.  Whatever it may be, we give attribution.  Not only is it a matter good etiquette, but it’s the honest thing to do.

Back when I thought Radley might be using my tips without crediting me, one thing puzzled me: Radley seems like a nice guy. Why wouldn’t he give me credit?

The answer I came up with is that Radley came to blogging with a bit of a journalism background, and he was following journalism’s ethics for sourcing a story. As I understand the rules, journalists cite sources for facts that make it into the story. They don’t cite sources for the idea of doing a story, and they don’t cite people who give them tips on a story.

If a friend tells me about a local family-owned restaurant that is being forced out of business after several years to make way for new development, and I go interview the owner, the developer, and the alderman, and write it up for the Chi-Town Daily News (as if I were still an active contributor), I’d cite the owner, developer, and alderman in the story, but not the friend who gave me a tip.

Then, if the Pioneer (or whatever they are these days) picked up on the story—perhaps as part of a larger story on development in Chicago—they could do one of two things: Either cite the story I wrote (“The Chi-Town Daily News is reporting that…”) or go out and interview my sources themselves and cite them directly. If they did the latter, journalistic ethics would almost certainly not require them to cite my story, since they have independent sources for the facts.

So, by journalism’s standards, Radley Balko didn’t owe me a mention because I didn’t give him any facts. I just tipped him off to something. If I used one of his posts as a story idea, but did my own reporting, my guess is that he wouldn’t have an ethical objection. I don’t know if any of this is really true, but it makes me feel better.

As for the New York Times reporter who wrote the Sotomeyor & Associates story, it seems like the same situation. Even if he got the idea from Turkewitz’s’s blog, he probably considers the idea public property because the primary source for the blog post—Sotomeyor’s questionnaire—is available to anyone, and Turkewitz doesn’t have any ownership of the story just because he wrote about it first. Newspapers chase each other’s stories this way all the time.

That’s different from blogger ethics. Much of blogging is adding commentary to something someone else wrote, so bloggers have a habit of crediting earlier posts about the same subject, even if they don’t really use anything from the earlier post. This acknowledges the effort to find the story and rewards bloggers for coming up with original ideas.

Basically, it’s a culture clash. Just as bloggers don’t mind other bloggers riffing off their posts, journalists don’t mind when someone else covers the same story. Of course, just because there’s a little cultural relativism going on doesn’t mean that one of the cultures has a better ethical system. Personally, I like the blogger way better.

There’s also the possibility that the New York Times reporter, Serge F. Kovaleski, didn’t steal the idea. Turkewitz did a great job spotting the issue a month before the Times did, but maybe Kovaleski spotted the issue on his own.

For one thing, Kovaleski’s expert contradicts Turkewitz on whether Sotomeyor did any advertising:

Turkewitz:

Did she have any associates when she was advertising herself in that manner?

Kovaleski:

Mr. Gillers said that since Ms. Sotomayor never appears to have advertised or to have put the name on letterhead, it is a technical issue and not one likely to ever have been cited by a disciplinary committee in the New York State court system.

Kovaleski is reporting that there’s no ethical violation because Sotomeyor never used the name in advertising. I’m not nearly smart enough to figure out who’s right about the ethical question, but it seems less likely Kovaleski copied his story when it refutes (correctly or not) a key point from Turkewitz’s.

Also, look at all the sources Kovaleski cites in his story:

  • “Her Senate questionnaire”
  • “the White House”
  • “public records”
  • “associates in the district attorney’s office”
  • “George M. Pavia, the senior partner of Pavia & Harcourt”
  • “White House communications officials”
  • “a White House spokeswoman”
  • “a spokesman [for Sotomeyor]”
  • “a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, Alicia Maxey Greene”
  • “several former members of the office”
  • “Katharine Law, a friend of the judge”
  • “District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau”
  • “Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics”
  • “White House officials”
  • “Hal R. Lieberman, a former disciplinary committee chief counsel in New York”
  • “a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt”
  • “tax experts.”

Does Kovaleski hate blogs so much that he’d cite all these people, yet refuse to admit he got the idea from Turkewitz? Kovaleski was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team that reported on the Spitzer prostitution scandal. Why would he have to steal from a local blogger to cover a national story?

Then again, stranger things have happened at the New York Times. If this controversy gains momentum in the blogosphere, perhaps someone at the Times will give the public an explanation.

Update: None of of this changes the fact that Eric Turkewitz scooped everyone.

12 responses to “On the Ethics of Sourcing For Bloggers and Journalists”

  1. KipEsquire

    Regurgitating (regurgiblogging?) a link without the infamous “HT: __” is not “fact checking.” It’s not plagiarism either, of course. But it’s not “fact checking.” It’s just obnoxious.

  2. shg

    Kovaleski was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team that reported on the Spitzer prostitution scandal. Why would he have to steal from a local blogger to cover a national story?

    Do you think that might be the reason why it’s embarrassing for a “real” journalist to have to get his stories from a lowly blogger. By the way, the Washington Post did an editorial on the issue a few days earlier, and cited to Turkewitz. Maybe WaPo didn’t get the memo?

  3. shg
  4. Dr X

    Interesting. Radley has cited me several times when I’ve emailed a local story to him, though not every time. I think when a story goes up 15 minutes after email him, it’s reasonable to assume that he got the story from me.

    I do think journalists are getting more comfortable with citing bloggers as sources, but they still vary greatly from one to the next. I would have expected The Times columnists to resist blogger citation across the board, but they seem to be getting comfortable with it. On the other hand, I think Tribune columnists have been slower to adopt blogger citation practices, even when they are writing their own blogs. Zorn, for example, seems kind of reluctant to cite sources.

  5. shg

    Washington Times was an editorial though, not a story. I don’t blame them for not crediting their competition (though sometimes they do), but are you suggesting that blogs are the competition to newspapers?

    Maybe.

  6. Radley Balko

    If I get a link from a single person, I try to credit that person, although sometimes a link will stay open in a browser tab days before I get around to posting it, and I’m sure there are times that I’ve forgotten where I first got the story (sorry!).

    But with most stories on my beat–if there’s a wrong door raid in the news, a big police abuse case, a forensics case, etc.–a half dozen or more people will send me the same link before I check my email in the morning, which makes hat-tipping all of them sort of tedious.

    There are also of course times when people send me links to stories I’ve already been planning to post about.

    But in general, I do try to give credit when someone sends me something I haven’t seen elsewhere. But I’ve also probably neglected to more than a few times.

  7. Eric Turkewitz

    Even if he got the idea from Turkewitz’s’s blog, he probably considers the idea public property because the primary source for the blog post—Sotomeyor’s questionnaire—is available to anyone…

    Well, yes and no. Something might be in the public domain, but it if is buried in a box of other documents, someone still has to go find it.

    Whether this qualifies as that proverbial box of documents is, of course, another question. I have to assume that, given the high profile nature of the filing, this would have been found by others eventually.

    Except that no one said a word for three weeks afterward.

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