Originally published version of this post.
When a journalist digs up an original story and other media outlets pick up on it, should they give the original reporter some sort of credit for their work?
It happens. Some reporter or another comes up with a wholly original story. Maybe they did some investigating. Maybe they got a tip. Maybe they were in the right place at the right time. In any case, they break a story and then other media outlets, the “competition”, follow.
I’m not talking about getting a press release first or being first on the scene of an accident. I’m talking about honest-to-goodness digging where a reporter finds a story that no one else did, and quite possibly no one else would have.
There’s a story going on right now in Prince George where a city councillor and member of the finance and audit committee hadn’t been paying property taxes. The first place this story was reported is on Opinion250.com, a web-only news source. The story was published on October 3, along with an opinion piece explaining why the outlet was interested. The story also says that three reporters at 250 attempted to reach the councillor, with no results.
The next day, October 4, this story appears in the Prince George Citizen. It references the same documents as Opinion250, and comes alongside a story and statement that the councillor has resigned from the finance and audit committee. This resignation apparently happened back in September, but it wasn’t until the day after Opinion250 published its story that any media reported on this.
The story was then picked up by the Vancouver Sun, Global News, and yes, CBC.
Let me put this bluntly: people in the news industry pay attention to other news sources. It would be silly to work in isolation and ignore what other people are coming up with. But my question is this: what SHOULD the correct protocol be for stories like this one? When one outlet does the digging, the work, or just plain gets a tip or the discovery, should they be rewarded or acknowledged in some way when other media follows along?
Anthony De Rosa thinks so. The social media editor for Reuters said as much in a piece called “Stop Matching“:
“If someone already reported the story, you’ve verified their story is correct, and you have nothing to move that story forward, write a brief and link to who did the legwork already. By all means, let your readers know about the story, lead them to it. Be a beacon for all news, not just your own. Then, move on and produce something of more value.
“Newsrooms are low on resources, apply those resources efficiently. Your 500 word re-write of the same article your ‘competitor,’ as you call them, is un-necessary and a total waste of time.”
Like De Rosa, I’m not calling out anyone in particular. I’ve been matched on original stories that I’ve done, and I’ve matched other people’s stories. I definitely believe in confirming information before spreading a story too widely. But if you have a story that never would have happened without someone else doing the digging, should you acknowledge and credit it in some way?
I read city council documents. I read press releases. I do digging. But I am constantly using other reporters from all sorts of news outlets for their own findings, contexts, and angles, and using that to inform my own interpretations and stay up-to-date on stories I’m interested in, but not actively covering. I think of other outlets more as my colleagues than my competition, because we are all working in the same ecosystem. The more (responsible) media outlets we are able to sustain, the better, in my humble opinion. So how do we reward others for their work? Or do we just assume the readers/listeners/viewers will know, and it will all work out?
Anyways. If you are in the industry (or just interested), some things to think about.
There was quite a bit of discussion about this on Twitter, and I want to be clear what I’m talking about. I am not talking about news outlets wholesale copying each other without doing any of their own work to verify facts or move things forward and not providing any form of credit. That’s lazy, and it’s also irresponsible. What if the first source made a mistake?
But I think we enter a gray area when there’s a big story that is revealed as the result of a reporter doing some investigative work or even being in the right place at the right time. If it’s an important story, it’s normal for other reporters to verify the facts, make their own phone calls, get their own quotes, and then “match” the story. This isn’t copying, and they are doing their own reporting. But they would never even know about the story if it weren’t for that first reporter doing the work. In these cases, is it appropriate to credit the source who initially broke the story?