Dear Associated Press: Come On, Attribution is Not That Hard

I bitched about this a little in my Twitter feed, but I’ll bitch about it a little bit more here, too: I’m vaguely annoyed at the Associated Press, which quoted me in its story about yesterday’s Google outage, but which attributed the quote to “another user,” rather than to “John Scalzi.” Which means a professional journalist was either unwilling or unable to do what hundreds of Twitter users (most, one assumes, not professional journalists) did without a problem when they retweeted what I wrote: Accurately sourced the quote. It’s not that hard to accurately source a quote on Twitter, you know: Just follow the “@” sign in the tweet.

I snarked about the AP Sourcefail on Twitter and folks there wondered if it was part and parcel of the mainstream media’s antipathy for all things electronic, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s 2009, folks, and most mainstream journalists really are hip to that whole Internet thing now, and are indeed hoping to one day monetize a blog, in the way they used to dream of having a column on a section front. Rather, I think it was just a bit of laziness on the AP reporter’s part.

Mind you, my gripe about it, couched though it is in a snarky observation of journalistic standards, has a significant self-serving component: That AP story went out to hundreds of newspapers and online sites, and as a working writer with an ego, it would have been nice to have a clever comment with my name accurately appended to it in all those places. That said, I am pretty sure that when I was working in newspapers, had I filed a story with a quote attributed to “some guy,” my editor would have been standing over my desk a few minutes later lecturing me on basic reporting practices.

Oh, well. At least Gawker got it right. And, also, hundreds of amateurs on Twitter.

65 thoughts on “Dear Associated Press: Come On, Attribution is Not That Hard

  1. Do you suppose that is the reason so many BS stories get way too much play on TV and in the papers?
    Sloppy, lazy so-called journalists tossing rumor and innuendo about, because it is too difficult to check a fact or locate a source?

  2. Well, sloppy journalism has ever been with us; the tabloids on the late 19th and early 20th century were not always fastidious about going for the facts over the flash. By and large journalism is fine. This particular incident is small potatoes. The reporter needs only a light smack on the head and an admonition to sin no more.

  3. Possibly by not attributing it, they didn’t need permission to use it. Having to ask permission means a chance of refusal, which in turn means more time to find a source willing to be quoted. Not sure if Twitter posts count as a true “public” statement.

  4. I guess anything is better than the foxnews practice of stating “I may have dreamt this or heard this on the bus” before presenting something as factual…

    At least they got the content right?

    Better not to be given credit something clever than to be falsely given credit for a bit jackassery…

    Rabid

  5. I saw the CNN article yesterday (http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/09/01/gmail.outage/index.html) and went back to see if your quote was in it (it wasn’t), but reading closer I was surprised to see they also quoted Twitter users anonymously.

    I wonder if either journalists haven’t decided how best to attribute Twitter quotes (seems pretty obvious to me), or prefer to use Twitter comments as “random opinions off the street”, but AP went and picked an award winning writer as a “random opinion”.

    But either explanation is lame. Even the Onion’s “American Voices” random opinions off the street are fully attributed. So whatever the reason, both AP and CNN reporters are dolts.

  6. Alex,

    The real problem occurs when there is no ability to fact check the statement. Should we just take the AP reporters word that someone said this?

    Rabid

  7. What the heck kind of story is it? Major news outlets seem to have invented a new kind of news story. The formula is this:

    a) find a trending topic on twitter
    b) report that the subject is big news on twitter

    What the hell kind of a beat is that? It’s got to be dreary. “One more story like this, and I’m putting you on the twitter beat.”

    “Nooooooooo!”

    Maybe the lack of attribution was passive aggressive rebellion for having to write such a lame story. Not that twitter is lame. It’s just lame to go and report in 400 words what is most adequately expressed in 140 characters.

    (None of this is to say your tweet wasn’t awesome and quotable, by the way.)

    By the way, a lot of journalists are horrible dinosaurs who in between whining about how stupid and lame twitter is will then turn to whining about how citizen journalism is destroying their career and you can’t make any money writing anymore.

  8. Alex Bledsoe:

    “Not sure if Twitter posts count as a true ‘public’ statement.”

    They do, and certainly mine does; anyone can see my Twitter feed and in any event the moment someone retweets it, it’s out in the public. Beyond this, there are very few incidences in which a reporter could not publish something; it’s one of the benefits of the First Amendment.

    Ken Marable:

    It’s not entirely possible that even if the reporter had correctly attributed the quote, that s/he would have known that I was an author; I’m not nearly that famous. Just an attribution by name would have worked for me.

  9. Rabid_android: It’s usually used more in celebrity reporting (I saw it pointed on the hilarious The Soup), but it reminds me of the practice of teasing a story with a blatant lie but couched in the form of a question.

    The example Joel McHale made fun, if I recall, was a pre-commercial tease showing a picture of Larry King with an eye patch and the host asked “Was Larry King injured in a fist fight? Find out after the break!” Come back from commercial and… it was just cataract surgery or some such.

    The media just needs to couch it in the proper terms and they just throw blatant misleading lies all over the place. Not sure if it’s frightening, hilarious, or both.

  10. Having dealt with some local papers it is entirely possible that the reporter correctly credited you but an editor changed it. And it may have been due to a policy that is based on the assumption that uncredited equals a lower chance of being sued over the use of a quote. Reporters hate what editors do to their articles, and they seem to do it often.

  11. Yeah, that’s kind of lame, that is. If my high school paper could figure out attributing usernames, the AP should be able to work it out.

    The really charitable story I’ve invented in my head is that the reporter in question knows there’s a prohibition about “outing” people’s online identities, couldn’t find “internet handles, citing” in their style manual, and panicked.

    But that might not really be a very charitable story, because one would have to be a moron to worry about outing someone as not anonymous as you.

  12. John Scalzi@3 wrote:
    The reporter needs only a light smack on the head and an admonition to sin no more.

    Yes, but when you make a habit of Sourcefail in academia (or if you want to be taken seriously as an author of non-fiction published by a reputable house) Credibilityfail (or its kissing cousin Employmentfail) is not far behind.

    There’s also a good rule of thumb for journalists to think about: If you’re careless about the small shit (like sloppy attribution) often enough that people begin to notice, they don’t be surprised if they start to doubt whether you that scrupulous about the big stuff (like accurate quotes or paraphrases of the person you can’t be arsed attributing to).

    Credibility takes a long time to build up, and a moment to destroy. That might not be fair, but life sucks arse like that.

  13. I’m inclined to think along the lines of Mark Evans’s comment as being as likely as the reporter simply dropping the ball. In the bit of newspaper writing I’ve done, there have been some editorial changes that baffled me. Assuming, of course, that these AP stories even run by an editor before hitting the wire in the first place.

  14. Mark Evans:

    “And it may have been due to a policy that is based on the assumption that uncredited equals a lower chance of being sued over the use of a quote.”

    This is the opposite of what newspaper editors in my experience would have done, however. Nor in this particular case is there anything legally actionable in the quote. It’s just puzzling.

  15. I would think that, as often as not, failing to source quotes can get you sued for plagiarism. Granted, in this case, the reporter attributed the quote to an anonymous source, saying in effect: “This isn’t my snark; some geek (whom I can’t be bothered to identify) in the twitterverse said it.”

  16. I think it has much more to do with how AP views bloggers.

    You’re only allowed to blog 4 words of an AP article. You aren’t supposed to link to it. If you want to copy more than 4 words from them you’re supposed to buy a license for them.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080617/0740561432.shtml

    So of course they aren’t going to attribute you, a blogger. They probably did click the twitter link, saw the size of your blog, and stripped off the name.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080613/0117561394.shtml

  17. hugh57: It is not, strictly speaking, possible to sue anyone for plagiarism. You can sue people for copyright infringement when what they are are alleged to have done is also plagiarism; this can be referred to, loosely, as suing them for plagiarism. But since the actual wrong being sued for is copyright infringement, whether it’s attributed shouldn’t make a difference.

    On the general issue: I have an idea similar to Annalee Flower Horne’s, but vaguer; there’s an old belief that the internet is, in some sense, a private place; so quoting someone on what they said on the internet is, in some way, an invasion of privacy. I think this view still lurks around in places (I’m not suggesting it makes sense), so perhaps they were protecting themselves against the possibility of Scalzi saying ‘Hey, I said that on the internet! You can’t quote me!’

  18. I’d be a lot less tolerant of this were I in your shoes, I have to admit: this kind of crap is totally enabling of other “news” organizations that like to couch things as “some people are saying [insert our editorial opinion]“.

    My private opinion is that someone got nervous about appearing to advertise or endorse someone’s Twitter feed, and didn’t want to do the spadework to determine whether “Twitter user Scalzi” is in fact “science fiction author and general man-about-town John Scalzi”.

  19. I saw another egregious example of Twitter source abuse on CNN a couple months back. While covering the fallout from the Iranian election, a CNN reporter started to quote from his “sources” about events on the ground. Those sources: tweets by (presumably) Iranians whom thousands of others were also following. The reporter never once acknowledged the source, instead giving viewers the impression that he had inside knowledge available only via CNN.

  20. Is “monetize a blog” the same thing as “immantenize the Eschaton”? If so, that might explain a lot in this situation.

  21. io9 stole a quote from me just yesterday. They took a line from an interview I did with Paul Melko, incorrectly attributed to a site that linked the inteview (SF Signal) and didn’t provide a link to either.

    Then when I commented about it, they deleted the comment and any subsequent attempts

    io9 Post

    The Original Interview

    The Webculture promotes browsing and very shallow reading which leads to poor sourcing and other journalistic bad habits.

    “I know I read that somewhere…”

  22. What Summer, Leah Cutter and Catherine Shaffer said. To me, the most irritating thing isn’t the mere laziness but how the laziness sort of betrays a fundamental hypocrisy.

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander and all that. Bill ‘em!

  23. Another Andrew @22: I suppose that copyright infringement is the actual legal wrong; plagiarism, per se, is more of a violation of an academic code of ethics. Thanks for pointing out the distinction.

    And I see what you mean about the Internet and privacy. I’ve seen people (particularly those under say, 20) post the damnedest things on Twitter and Facebook, seemingly oblivious to the idea that their parents and teachers can read them. The whole phenomenon of “sexting” seems to reflect a similar mindset, that somehow only the one or two intended recipients will see the pics, and that for anyone else to see them is somehow an invasion of privacy. I’ll admit that my generation (I’m 52) used to talk about dumb stuff and look at porn when we were that age, but I seem to recall some effort to keep that stuff away from the eyes and ears of the older generations. Not always successful, mind you, but at least more effort was there. A generational thing, I suppose.

  24. Well, sloppy journalism has ever been with us; the tabloids on the late 19th and early 20th century were not always fastidious about going for the facts over the flash.

    While that’s undeniably true, it’s less clear to me that the general level of “fastidious” — however low it may have been in the past — has remained constant.

    By and large journalism is fine.

    Oh? Even taking into consideration the massive corporate consolidation over recent years and — shock, shock, totally coincidental — recent string of newspaper closings?

    This particular incident is small potatoes. The reporter needs only a light smack on the head and an admonition to sin no more.

    Either that or they need a transfer to the politics desk, where omitting attribution seems to be seen as a good practice.

  25. Oh, and John? Apropos the original quote: Your delightfully skewed sense of humor has quite possibly caused a statistically significant uptick in the number of times I say, “Um, it’s hard to explain” to my partner.

  26. How’s this work? A number of posters sugest JS should bill them. JS@10 says this is a public comment. Can you bill for being quoted on something said in public? On the other side can you do anything if they quote you but don’t say who they are quoting? That seems very close to copy right infringement. Especially if it is a pro writer you are quoting.
    My money is on lazy incompetence. In my VERY limited experience the press can be pretty lazy. I worked for a company that put out a lot of PR. For the most part the stories published about the company were word for word copies of the press release. It reminded me of a middle school report that was pretty much a copy out of the encylopdia.

  27. If you want to know how print journalism works read The Front Page by McCarthy and Hecht.

    If you want to know how broadcast journalism works, watch Network by Paddy Chayefski.

    The watch the Hospital by Chayefski and be very afraid.

  28. On my personal blog, I admit to having done the “I read this paraphrased statement somewhere” but ONLY if I can’t find the original to link to. Also, it’s my personal journal/blog, so I’m not as worried.

    But if I had tried this crap in my college journalism courses, I would rightfully have got a smackdown. I mean, it’s one thing to say you can’t name your sources for ethical reasons. Another to fail to cite them out of laziness.

    And it’s not like the reporter was working with a 140 character limit. In any case: John Scalzi = 10 characters. Another user = 11. I just don’t understand why somebody would go to the trouble to quote somebody and leave the attribution off.

  29. The Fark book is surprisingly illuminating on matters journalistic.

    I recall that Pulitzer (he of the Prize) and Hearst (the guy that Citizen Kane obliquely mocks) basically invented a war in Cuba to sell papers. There was a kind of half-hearted uprising, and managed to turn a fortuitous series of accidents and misunderstandings into a case for US interference. A complete unwillingness to fact check is still not as bad as actually inventing a story that does real damage to another country purely to sell papers.

  30. A complete unwillingness to fact check is still not as bad as actually inventing a story that does real damage to another country purely to sell papers.

    Presumably the middle ground there would be a complete unwillingness to fact check someone else’s invented stories that end up causing real damage to another country.

  31. Sloppy to the bone marrow… There is not much I can say other than this and yeah, not getting any credit or recognition for something you penned and was too good to pass up is kind of a low blow from randomness. Blah and it sucks not from a I-m-seeking-fame angle, but from the simple principle.

  32. I’m wondering if this might be more widespread. When The Guardian picked up on Tim Holman’s fantasy cover survey last month they used my name (because they saw it first on my blog) but not the names of several other people whose comments they picked out of the blogosphere. Maybe there’s some “be careful not to use too many names” policy at newspapers.

  33. Cheryl: Perhaps it’s the fact that if one correctly attributes everybody quoted in those kinds of articles, it makes it clear that little actually reporting is involved. A little cut-and-paste, a little filler, and — voila! — something to show the corporate upper-management weenies when they ask how the paper is trying to appeal to the hip, with-it crowd.

  34. Just out of curiosity, which is preferable: correct quotation without attribition, or incorrect quotation with attribution? Because AP is perfectly capable of both.

  35. I think Cheryl’s idea @40 is the right one: newspapers want to avoid mentioning the names of private citizens who make publically-accessible comments.

    If the statement isn’t copyrighted content, I suspect they can get away with it. They’re not quoting John Scalzi, they’re quoting something witty that someone said as a humorous introduction to their piece. They don’t care who John Scalzi is, nor do they think anyone reading the article will care.

  36. It’s carelessness. Which we see a LOT of in American stories.

    By contrast, I interned at The AP in Jerusalem in 2006, which office was staffed by the best of the best, that being the busiest AP bureau in the world outside of Iraq, and even though I mostly wrote features, rather than hard political news wherein a journalistic misstatement in the Middle East can cause deaths, I nonetheless couldn’t even write that someone had -sneezed- unless I could source the sneeze. They had very strong standards there. Which I sure wish we saw more of over here.

    LauraR

  37. Passed your link to a journalism instructor at U-W, who immediately re-tweeted it and set a shining example of how it *should* be done:
    http://twitter.com/kegill/statuses/3715419900

    Attributed both the AP article, your blog entry, and your name and Twitter ID, and included a single devastating word of commentary. In less than 140 characters.

    I’m glad she’s *teaching* journalism. We need more writers that can write like that.

  38. 43. If the statement isn’t copyrighted content,

    All statements are copyrighted from the moment they’re made. By default it’s to whoever made the statement, though sometimes they’ll be copyrighted to whoever paid for the statement to be written.

  39. Okay, sure, I see why you’d like to be name-checked, and obviously that is how journalism is supposed to roll.

    That said, it reads better without the names of the Twitter users. The story isn’t fundamentally about what particular Twitter users think of GMail, it’s about GMail. Knowing which particular random dude on Twitter said something is not important, and putting proper names in the story just clutters it up with irrelevancies at best, and distracts (“Is that THE John Scalzi they’re quoting?”) at worst.

  40. Someone said:

    “… putting proper names in the story just clutters it up with irrelevancies at best …”

    If the quote is relevant, the name of the person being quoted is relevant.

  41. Does anyone else find it ironic that it’s the AP doing this? The same AP that was trying to charge bloggers large sums of money for quoting as little as 5 words from an AP story? Looks like the regard for IP doesn’t go the other way.

  42. Melendwyr@ 43 writes: If the statement isn’t copyrighted content, I suspect they can get away with it. They’re not quoting John Scalzi, they’re quoting something witty that someone said as a humorous introduction to their piece. They don’t care who John Scalzi is, nor do they think anyone reading the article will care.

    ….

    But surely they thought somebody would care or why would it be in the article???

    And Scalzi evidently cares about being attributed correctly. Supposing somebody sees this quote and thinks, “Hey, this is the voice of the snarky everyman,” and co-opts this line for a bit of dialogue in their sitcom or play or webcomic about the perils of the interwebs. Completely unaware that as a writer, Scalzi would almost CERTAINLY care about where his words end up. Yeah, it’s just a tweet, but maybe he wants to mine it later. I mine sketches and snippets I toss off for paintings and stories, so why wouldn’t Scalzi? In any case, his words should be attributed to him.

    This is why we have people quoting the bit the platypus being evidence of God’s sense of humour, and other people thinking those people are quoting Kevin Smith from Dogma, when he merely used a clever turn of phrase that has been floating around unattributed for aeons.

    But in this case, the quote was easily attributed and should have been.

  43. Same darn thing just happened to me today with Associated Content, regarding chupacabra photos I’d published back in ’04. Granted, hardly anyone reads my blog, but really folks…

  44. David Goldfarb @49. There’s always the possibility that some poor schmuck, not knowing about fair use and trying to abide by the ridiculous AP rates and rules, tries to quote Scalzi’s words and gets charged for it. Because as far as he knows, those words just belong to some guy on the street and the AP reported them, instead of mining Twitter for reactions to an event.

  45. As many have pointed out, this is the same AP that’s had its nipples in a twist over people “stealing” their content. What a bunch of asshats…

  46. First, as I don’t really do Twitter, I missed this quote in its original form, and thus when I saw it in the AP article, I was dismayed that I might never know the brilliant hand from which it sprung (which is, of course, evidence that it should’ve been attributed.)

    Second, as someone in media? I hate AP. Half of their pieces need serious copy cleanup before I can publish them, and most are riddled with bias, poor sourcing and little to no attempt at putting quotes in context.

    This wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t a virtual monopoly. Reuters and BBC do a great job with international news, and WaPo occasionally has some good domestic political coverage, but for day-to-day domestic news? We’re stuck using AP, because they’re the only entity with the kind of broad reach necessary to quickly get high-interest stories out to a wide audience.

    Part of this problem is due to the death of local newspapers. Even the ones that are still alive now have mere skeleton crews of local reporters and editors, and are rarely able to cover even local stories with any depth and immediacy. Even when they are able to get those stories out, their distribution is limited to what their corporate owners put out on their internal wires. You might see some great work from, say, a Scripps paper, but if the story only gets circulated to other Scripps properties, it’s not going to get the same kind of broad attention that an AP story would. Thus, even if you have, say, excellent coverage of a mall shooting in Kansas by a local Kansas paper, most Americans are only going to see the slapdash version produced by AP.

    What we really need is a national network of local papers who all share locally produced stories, but since a) these places all have contracts with AP and b) they’re all owned by different parent corps, it’s never going to happen.

    The sad net result of this is going to be that news production as we know it is going to be split in two: AP and the broadcast nets covering (and often whitewashing) all the national-level stories, and untrained bloggers covering the rest.

    I’m kind of hoping that we’ll eventually see more of what the Seattle P-I did when it couldn’t afford to print anymore. Having more professional journalists working online, to get wider distribution of good reporting, might help both break the AP’s stranglehold on large-scale reporting and help up the overall quality of online news.

  47. It still just baffles me that Twitter is being used as a source for news. This is an app for telling people exactly when you are “totally eating a pizza right now”, or “just about to go to the store for some eggs” or even “@gregg49 i am taking a major shit right now lol”.

    I concede that in some scenarios, Twitter could be a viable news source. But the journalists I see using it are simply using it as a way to get around doing harder research.

  48. FWIW, I do think online commentary is a ripe source for taking public pulse on a given issue. “Man on the street” quotes often miss the voices of a lot of people who can’t be found that way.

    But those quotes still need attribution, just like any other quotes do. You do everything you can to get a real name, and if you absolutely need that quote, and absolutely can’t get that name, you at least go with a screen name, and have some way of proving, if later questioned, that you weren’t the one who made the post and thus quoted yourself (yes, this has happened. Ugh.)

  49. It’s NOT news Megan. It’s people talking. It’s no different than any other little snippets of conversation. Some people write banal crap, some pass on links of interest to their readers, some post witty lines. Scalzi’s was the latter.

  50. You know kids these days, with their Internets and LOLspeak. Maybe he was afraid to give a public attribution of the quote to a Twitter user named “John Scalzi”, like journalists a generation ago would have hesitated before attributing anything to a guy who gives his name as Ben Dover, or Hugh Hasmidick.

    For all he knew, “Scalzi” is some kind of weird Twitter slang, as in, “Check out yon Scalzi babe!”

  51. The Associated Press is not a reliable source of information, any information. Within the last year, I have written letters to my local newspapers trying to get them to stop using the AP for reasons having nothing to do with a Gmail outage.

  52. My friend @ahotchkiss on Twitter suggests you “should write an article and refer to AP as “another news agency”…”

  53. @ Rembrant: I think the “bill ‘em” comments were meant more as snark over AP’s attempt to force people quoting AP articles to pay a license than a serious statement about copyright law (at least mine was). There’s a reasonable argument, I think, that regardless of the public-or-private nature of John’s comment, use of it falls under “Fair Use,” with the matter of attribution being more of a best practices/etiquette sort of thing. Which, actually, is one of the problems with AP’s licensing scheme–many of the uses they propose to license are protected by Fair Use jurisprudence.

  54. John, you were the star of that article. Also, having worked at many palces that did use in-house email, hainv only two siginificant screw ups since May would be a big improvement over what I’ve seen in-house.

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