There is a menace in digital journalism and, unfortunately, it is not going away any time soon no matter how cleverly a medium thinks it is hiding the violation. This menace is called “lifting” online content of an entire article — verbatim — into another print or online publication without the reporter’s permission. The “lifter” has the habit of offering neither attribution nor a hyperlink to the original source. And is there compensation? Well, no.
“Lifting entire articles without permission or attribution, I consider that plagiarism,” SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andrew Seaman wrote in an email. He said the SPJ Code of Ethics calls for always attributing information.
One case in point is the lifting of a Decaturish.com original article by publisher Dan Whisenhunt. Decaturish.com serves Decatur, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.
Whisenhunt said he was surprised to see his article verbatim on the Newnan (Georgia) Times-Herald website. He is given a byline but with no hyperlink back to Decaturish.com. More baffling was the Times-Herald had his article for sale in its online archives.
Whisenhunt protested to Times-Herald general manager John Winters, and the article was taken down. But Whisenhunt wasn’t done. He sent Winters an invoice for $1,000. I would like to say Whisenhunt received a check, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Winters replied, “any damage to viewership on your site, as a result of our posting the (Decaturish.com) article, would be miniscule.”
The Decaturish publisher’s decision to act on the possible infringement stirred his intellectual mix of keeping publishing relationships intact and choosing his battles carefully. Even though he said he was not satisfied with how the situation was resolved, he is not pursuing legal action. Hiring an attorney was not in the cards this time.
Taking a more aggressive stand, one blogger in Missouri decided to use social media to confront a publisher he accused of plagiarism. AllAmericanBlogger.com’s reporter Duane Lester brought along a cameraman in his quest for compensation.
As you can see on his YouTube post, Lester walks into the Oregon (Missouri) Times Observer office and hands the publisher an “assertion of copyright” letter for infringement, which carries a minimum $750 fee. On camera, Lester and the publisher agree on $500. The publisher writes the check and leaves an expletive on the memo line.
For a quick fix, an anxious broadcaster with an appetite for churning out breaking news might lift an existing online article to use on their news website.
Take the example of StateImpact Oklahoma, a cooperative initiative with NPR, and its key reporter, Joe Wetz, who was covering a major story on the state’s earthquakes. An Oklahoma City TV station lifted Wetz’s article for its own website. “I contacted the station’s manager but never received a response,” Kurt Gwartney, former editorial director for StateImpact Oklahoma, wrote in an email about his experience. But the article was removed from the TV station’s website.
“The marriage of those two principles (seek truth and report it) says journalists should be doing their own work,” Seaman said.
“There may be rare circumstances when journalists may need to attribute information to other outlets until they are able to independently verify the information,” he said. “Even in those cases, the attributed information should not take up the entirety of the story.”
Sharon Dunten is editor of SurvivingTimes.com and a freelance journalist in Atlanta, Ga. She is president of the statewide SPJ Georgia chapter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.