Linked out of a job

Although the temperature is forecast to hit 77 degrees on Tuesday, the landscape still looks to be in November mode. Given such scenery, I felt OK in rehashing a high-profile firing that took place before Thanksgiving.

Jim Romenesko, a popular commentator for Poynter, left the industry think-tank after allegations of plagiarism. Finding theft is much easier with the Internet, but Romenesko’s situation left plenty of gray.

He had not, in fact, stolen anyone’s work. Rather, his was a sin of omission. He used attributions and links in lieu of quotation marks, and in doing so, he raised an issue important to the Internet era.

Poynter was transparent about the entire issue, citing reasons why the gaffes were so crucial. Foremost, citing sources runs into the heart of journalistic ethics. The Internet has not changed what is right or wrong, but it has allowed attributions in new forms.

That article offered these questions on the situation:

How much does intent matter?
How much weight does the attribution carry?
How much of our work rests on unspoken understandings?

For some, the final question can be answered with an unshakeable, None. Columbia Journalism Review called Romenesko’s practice “sloppy” and said it was “odd to criticize a journalism ethics institute for caring too much about journalism ethics.”

The American Journalism Review argued for the first question posed by Poynter editors, hinging the lack of a scandal on the absence of intent to mask his sources/word choices. AJR called the ordeal a “self-righteous melodrama.”

Others called the difference an “offense of punctuation,” not attribution. Even the Poynter director didn’t consider the lack of direct attribution to be outright plagiarism.

As one of my professors wrote, a discussion needs to take place for journalists working with “new media, old rules.” A failure to link adequately can be viewed as violation of trust online, but can links be considered replacements for attribution?

No, but they are complementary.

Those three questions above are directly from the Poynter article I linked to. I also attributed them to Poynter in a secondary reference, but, as you see, they do not have quotation marks around them. They are not my words, but I think I’ve made that fact overtly clear.

I don’t consider this plagiarism, nor do I consider it plagiarism when someone links to an article, but doesn’t cite the author’s name directly. Purists probably consider both to be grave errors.

Transparency is not a direct substitute for attribution, but the two methods work well together. The important point is to illustrate and guide readers to who wrote/said the words.

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2 Responses to Linked out of a job

  1. shobavish says:

    Nice post! I realize that your focus is on journalistic ethics. I think this question of attribution is a problem that cuts across all kinds of digital content from writing to photos. I think transparency and a link back to the source are going to have to be the ground rules for all of us who hang out in Web 2.0.

  2. Dustin says:

    Thanks for reading. Yes, this is a problem with fluctuating boundaries, and it’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

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