Story matching is a reality for journalists. Is attributing ideas necessary?
By Violet MacLeod
Is matching a story idea without attribution theft or plagiarism?
Well, legally, it’s neither.
Matching – also known as poaching or following – is recycling a published story, often using the same sources. When a journalist breaks a story, other reporters often match the original piece without giving credit. It’s not technically plagiarism, an offence which can get a journalist fired. But the Canadian Copyright Act – the act protecting intellectual property rights – does not include sourcing ideas. The only consequence of matching ideas is agitating another journalist.
Tim Bousquet says he would have been upset if someone tried to poach his story on Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly’s misconduct as executor of the late Mary Thibeault’s estate.
“It’s probably one of the biggest stories I’ll ever do,” says Bousquet, “and, yeah, I want credit for it.”
On Feb. 16, 2012, Bousquet’s article appeared in the Coast – a weekly alternative paper – about Kelly’s negligence as executor. It took Bousquet months of tracking down sources, uncovering documents and heavy legal vetting, but the work paid off. Kelly was dismissed as executor of the estate by the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia after failing to disclose the removal of $160,000 from Thibeault’s bank account. The Twitterverse was stunned, as feeds lit up with excitement over details of the scandalous story.
But as the national appetite for the story grew, audiences began questioning the lack of coverage from other outlets.
Angela MacIvor, a broadcast producer with CBC Halifax, says the CBC ignored the story because editors knew they couldn’t match it. The information was hard to obtain, and after making phone calls and sifting through documents, no progress had been made. Many of the documents and sources in the piece were exclusive to the Coast. Competing outlets couldn’t recreate the article on their own. If they wanted to report it, they had to reference the Coast. So when viewers started flooding the CBC with calls and emails demanding to see the story, MacIvor knew what she had to do.
Listen as Angela MacIvor of CBC reacts to the Coast’s Story.
“I did the investigation,” Bousquet explains. “There were lots of things in the story that could not be otherwise vetted.” He says giving credit is the only way other outlets could have reported the story.
Story poaching is a touchy subject for journalists. Although it’s not a legal issue, it’s considered lazy journalism to rewrite an established story. It leaves readers with limited information, and a lack of engaging and diverse stories. Poaching also jeopardizes the survival of niche outlets which rely on unique articles to drive readership.
And, democratic ideals aside, journalists hate having a good story poached. If another news outlet reproduced the Kelly article without crediting the Coast, Bousquet says it would be unethical.
“You give credit where credit is due.”
Although every journalist in this piece agreed story-matching is an ethical issue, journalism instructors take a different stance.
Ivor Shapiro, ethics editor for the Canadian Journalism Project and journalism chair at Ryerson University, believes matching is not morally wrong, but lazy.
“It’s frustrating when you put a whole day working your butt off to get a story done and get all the pieces, and then it only takes 10 minutes for another reporter to confirm.”
– Angela MacIvor, CBC
“It’s quite frequent that people start thinking in an ethical frame of mind about something (when) it’s really about a degree of excellence.”
Kevin Cox, a former instructor at the University of King’s College, believes matching is a question of values. Cox says taking original story ideas and re-writing them from the same angle represents not only a lack of integrity, but theft.
“I used to tell people,‘You’re taking my kids’ education savings plan away when you do that, because you’re costing us subscribers.’”
Few ethics codes mention attributing other outlets’ original ideas, but that practice is changing. Some outlets have established ethics codes which instruct their journalists to credit the origin of the story.
“Attribute, attribute and attribute some more,” reads the National Public Radio ethics code. “Just as we insist that NPR be given credit for its work, we are generous in giving credit to others for their scoops and enterprise work.”
The Calgary Journal – a student run paper at Mount Royal University – requires attribution in its reporting. “Any material borrowed from outside sources – even if only a paragraph, single photograph or short video – must be credited,” reads its ethics code.
Some news organizations such as the CBC have standards which urge reporters to elaborate on a story whenever they get an idea from a rival news outlet.
“We don’t like to just match a story,” says MacIvor. “We like to take it one step further.”
Broadcast is notorious for poaching stories from print and online outlets. Since broadcast is a competitive environment, producers are always trying to have current news to serve their audience, says MacIvor of CBC. So when the folks at CBC notice a good story they don’t have, “everyone cringes and thinks, why didn’t we have that?”
MacIvor says she would never copy a story. The goal is to make the story better. “It’s frustrating when you put a whole day working your butt off to get a story done and get all the pieces, and then it only takes 10 minutes for another reporter to confirm.”
For MacIvor having stories poached is an ethical issue, but it’s to be expected. “That’s just the way it goes,” she says. “It’s the nature of the beast.”
The lines between ethics, legality, and bad journalism are difficult to define. The United States is moving forward with a competition law recognizing the doctrine known as “hot news.” Hot news means organizations hold “quasi-property” rights if they invest capital and time in a story. This even applies if the news is re-printed using different wording to avoid copyright infringement. Media companies have used the doctrine as an argument for intellectual property. For example, in 2009, The Associated Press settled an intellectual property lawsuit against All Headline News Media, claiming AHN recycled AP stories by changing the article names.
Investigative pieces are often the most affected when a story is poached, but issues can also arise when spot news is matched – especially with many outlets using paywalls to reserve their stories for subscribers only.
AllNovaScotia.com is one of these outlets, reporting business and political news exclusively online. The reproduction of their stories threatens revenues since their content is unique to their subscribers, says Kevin Cox, also a former AllNovaScotia editor.
When Bud True shut down his iconic Bud the Spud chip truck, AllNovaScotia reporter Andrew Macdonald was first to report, posting his story at 11 p.m. on April 22, 2009. By 6:04 p.m. on April 23, CBC matched the story.
Both stories used the same facts and had similar ledes, differing only in language and quotes. Macdonald contends CBC got the story from AllNovaScotia.
Cox says the Bud the Spud story is just one example of the online news outlet getting poached. He also believes several competing organizations subscribe to AllNovaScotia.com to poach stories and ideas. In December 2011, the online news outlet suspended subscriptions of anyone they suspected of poaching their stories.
“I was kind of opposed to it at the time,” says Cox, who was worried about losing subscriptions. “But I think they were wise … to send a warning.”
In July 2012 Nour Awad’s 1,700-word feature On Wearing the Hijab and Being “In-Between” was sold to the Halifax Media Co-op (HMC). She then sold the story to the Coast in September. She understood the Coast would credit the HMC for being the first to publish the story, but no credit was given when the article appeared in the Coast.
For the HMC, getting credit was harder than they thought.
The co-op pushed for credit for having been the first to publish the story. The volunteer editors wrote a letter to the Coast requesting credit. In the letter they acknowledge their lack of “legal teeth,” but say the volunteer hours and time invested – when it could have been used elsewhere – merited credit for creating and publishing the story.
The Coast later printed a note crediting the HMC. The note said,“In last week’s Back to School edition, “Cover Story” by Nour Awad had originally been published by the Halifax Media Co-op. The Coast should have mentioned this fact.”
They also added a note on the bottom of the Coast’s online version of Awad’s story, “A different version of this article has appeared at halifax.mediacoop.ca.”
Moira Peters, an editor with the HMC, says getting the credit wasn’t easy. Since there is no legal retribution for neglecting to credit other outlets for their original work, however, it was a small victory.
Smaller news organizations protect their scoops. Elling Lien, editor of the alternative newspaper The Scope in St. John’s N.L., says if they have a scoop, they will not post the story online but instead will wait for their monthly print edition, their “bread and butter.”
[pullquote]“I won’t deny that (matching) happened all the time, and it did. It happened all through my career.”
– Kevin Cox, former Globe and Mail reporter[/pullquote]
“That’s where the advertising dollars are,” says Lien. “That’s where we want to focus as many eyes as possible, because if we put it online it’s basically just throwing it into the wind.”
MacIvor of CBC and Bousquet of the Coast also say they restrict online content to limit other outlets’ capabilities to match the story. The competitive nature of news is expected to intensify with the addition of paywalls. The subscription-based model could cause news organizations to be more protective over their content and more expectant of credit for their original stories.
Few journalists want to blatantly accuse other outlets of poaching their original ideas. Some journalists who were disgruntled in interviews for this article refused to give specific examples of stories picked up by other outlets.
“I don’t want to go around slagging the other journalists and news outlets in the city,” said one local reporter in an email. “Needless to say, though, (poaching) happens.”
The unwillingness to talk could also be related to guilt – many journalists are guilty of poaching. Even though it made him feel guilty, Cox acknowledges he would often be asked to match Toronto Star stories when he worked at the Globe and Mail.
“I won’t deny that (matching) happened all the time, and it did. It happened all through my career.”
Footnotes are academia’s way of crediting intellectual property. For most journalists, a footnote or link to their original story or site would be a welcome form of attribution. Bethany Horne, a former news curator for OpenFile Halifax, says there is no excuse for lack of attribution. Even if it doesn’t look neat in the print copy, editors can always add attribution to the online copy.
Although Bousquet and Awad successfully received acknowledgement of their work, many journalists say chasing credit for their original stories is a waste of time.
Moira Peters of the HMC thinks the solution is obvious. “It’s a very simple solution: just give credit where credit is due. Then it’s fine, it’s respectful.”