Scott Greenfield is a little peeved that reporters don’t give credit when they pick up stories from bloggers:
For many years, mainstream media got a lot of juice as a result of links from the web, from blogs. We would see a story and pick it up, run with it, comment on it, and people would find it sufficiently fascinating to go read the source article in a paper they would never otherwise know about. Do you read the Times? Or the Gate? Or the Christian Science Monitor, or USA Today, or tiny local papers no one outside of bumfuck has ever heard of? Not unless there is a reason to do so.
Yet, when a blawg picked up on a story or opinion that subsequently caught the interest of a newspaper reporter, they were happy to run with it, but there was almost never a mention of the fact that it came via a blog. Reporters saw no need to credit blogs, as they were, well, blogs. Beneath their dignity and inconsequential, tapping away with crazy eyes in bathrobes in the middle of the night.
Scott is right about reporters not giving credit to bloggers, but I think he’s wrong about why. Well, some reporters sneer at bloggers, but I think there’s also a bit of a culture clash between the conventions of journalism and blogging.
The reason traditional journalists cite sources in stories is not to give credit, but rather to describe the origin of statements of facts within the story, thereby giving some indication of their credibility. A story which says that “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to an anonymous source” is not as credible as a story that says “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to a statement issued Wednesday morning by former comptroller Melvin P. Jones.”
This is basically the journalist’s version of footnotes. In an academic paper, the same statement would probably look something like this:
Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry.1
1Melvin P. Jones, former comptroller, statement on January 29, 2014.
With this cite to a source, readers and other journalists can judge the story’s veracity or even try to contact Melvin P. Jones directly to verify the facts or get additional information.
But regardless of how you write it, as a journalist or as an academic, it doesn’t really do the reader much good to know how the author discovered this fact. “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to former comptroller Melvin P. Jones, who this reporter contacted on a tip from accountant Mike Devlin, who he heard about from receptionist Debra Stevens, who he first met while doing another story four years ago.”
Unless they’re interested in the actual reporting process, readers don’t need to know about any of the people the reporter talked to along the way to Melvin P. Jones. They’re not sources, they’re just people with tips and ideas about stories, and journalists usually don’t mention them. (In fact, many of them prefer it that way, so they can keep their jobs.)
Similarly, a journalist who writes something like “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to former comptroller Melvin P. Jones, in a story first brought to our attention by Scott Greenfield,” isn’t really adding anything that has an impact on the credibility of the facts being reported. Neither is it worthwhile to mention that other media outlets are reporting the story, for the same reason. And it certainly adds little of value to the reader to know from which particular media outlet or blog the reporter got the idea.
One time when media outlets do credit each other is when they don’t have their own sources. So if the Times is reporting the Governor Smith bribery story, and the Post doesn’t have their own source in the Governor’s office, then the Post‘s only choices are to either not run a story about the Governor’s bribe-taking at all, or run the story and credit the only information source they have: “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to former comptroller Melvin P. Jones, as reported in the Times.” This lets readers know that the facts come second-hand by way of the Times, which may or may not make the story less credible for them. Think of it as the journalist’s equivalent to the academic rule discouraging citing secondary sources in footnotes: Use them only when you don’t have a primary source.
This is one of the reasons journalists get so excited about exclusive stories: If any other media outlet wants to talk about your story, they have to credit you. It’s also why it sucks to play catch-up on a story: You have to keep crediting the competition. You can bet that the Post will try to get their own reporter to talk to Melvin P. Jones before the next edition, so that they can end the humiliation of crediting the Times in every single version of the story.
Bloggers think about this completely differently. For one thing, unlike the news media (or academics writing footnotes), we are far more willing to cite secondary sources. In part, that’s because we don’t generally do much reporting. Most traditional bloggers don’t interview people or gather facts, and this puts us in the same position as the Post above: We have to link to other web pages to cite sources for our material.
Bloggers can also be freer in their use of secondary sources because our form of journalism developed in the age of hypermedia. So if I want to write about the recent accusations against Woody Allen by his daughter, I can link to Gideon’s analysis of whether he can be prosecuted or Jack Marshall’s brutal takedown of one of Allen’s defenders and trust that my readers will be able to follow the links to the primary source if they want to. In this way, linking to secondary sources actually provides more information than just linking to the primary source because it also provides links to other people who have interesting things to say.
Since we do this all the time, as an intentional part of blogging, we don’t think of it as a bad thing, the way traditional journalists do. Mentioning other websites and including quotes and links is just how blogging is done. In fact, finding other interesting websites and blog posts is recognized as a big part of the value of blogging: We go out and find interesting stuff for you to read. One of the reasons Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit blog was so wildly influential is because he was always finding interesting new bloggers for his readers to enjoy.
Also, the early bloggers were somewhat embattled — under attack from traditional journalists and from many of the politicians, business leaders, and celebrities they wrote about — and this led to a sort of “brothers in arms” camaraderie: You suck and your ideas are stupid, and in my post explaining why you suck and why your ideas are stupid, I’m going to pay you the respect of linking to you and giving you credit for the things you wrote because we’re all bloggers and we have to support each other. After all, people who disagree with us are also great sources of material for blog posts. Even our ideological opponents help us succeed at blogging.
If reporters’ citing sources of facts are the journalistic equivalent of footnotes, then bloggers’ links to posts that inspired them are the blogospheric equivalent of a book’s Acknowledgements.
Traditional journalists just don’t think that way. They expect to have competition on stories. Even when a story starts out as an exclusive — and every other news outlet has to credit them as the source — they assume other journalists will be contacting the same sources and searching the same files as they did, and that they will eventually publish substantially similar stories without acknowledging that someone else got there first. That’s just how journalism is done.
Also, traditional journalists are taught to keep themselves out of the story. (You wouldn’t know that from TV reporters, but it’s generally still the case with print media.) That means they generally just tell the story without saying how they got it, or where they got the idea for it, or who else has been writing about it. They assume readers will not be interested in that stuff, or in the general history of how the story has been playing out in the media. After all, even book authors usually put the Acknowledments section at the end, where people don’t have to read it.