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Breaking the Sarah Palin Trademark Story: A Lesson in Journalism Ethics

4 years ago
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Sometimes a light bulb goes off.

One night at 2 a.m. I was reading a story by Matt Lewis about Herman Cain, a possible 2012 presidential candidate from Georgia. Pursuing the Cain story further, I discovered that he had trademarked the phrase "The Hermanator Experience."

Trademark? Hmm. I wondered if Sarah Palin had trademarked something with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It seemed like something she would do. A quick search and voila! Indeed, her longtime family attorney, Thomas Van Flein, had filed two applications with the office for the names Sarah Palin and Bristol Palin.
But with that scoop about Palin's branding, a question about journalism ethics and civility in the 21st century arose. In the Internet age, does the old journalism rule of giving credit to a breaking story's original source still apply?

In this zip-zip era of blogs, it's easy to lose track of which outlet breaks a story first, especially as it becomes viral through social media. The Palin story was picked up by many websites, including Politico, The Atlantic Wire, Vanity Fair, Talking Points Memo and Mediaite. Those sites linked to the original story and gave Politics Daily credit.

Then something odd happened. Vanity Fair began getting credit for the story. It was as if reporters weren't even reading the Vanity Fair piece -- and noting its reference to the original source -- but just copying and pasting the link into their stories. To confront or not to confront? That was the question.

In journalism, professional courtesy has been a long-standing tradition, and it still pays for reporters to check the accuracy of sources, whether they're writing for a newspaper or a blog. In other words, search for the original source. Not to so do isn't exactly unethical, but it is lazy and sloppy at best.

In 2008, Jeff Jarvis wrote on his "Buzz Machine" blog: "I believe it is vital that we as an industry find ways to point to and give credit to original reporting. That is how original journalism will be supported, in the end: by monetizing the audience that comes to it, whether through advertising or contributions."

He also created a golden rule: "Link unto others' good stuff as you would have them link unto your good stuff."

Thankfully, ethics still exist among some reporters. When I e-mailed a Salon reporter, he immediately apologized and said he would link to Politics Daily. He did so. The same thing happened when I e-mailed a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When a reporter with the New York Daily News gave another AOL entity credit instead of Politics Daily, I sent her a nice note explaining that the two were separate sites. She apologized and changed it within five minutes.

But not everyone was so eager to please.

The Arkansas Times blog didn't cite Politics Daily -- or any site, for that matter -- in the body of the post. The report did have a link to Talking Points Memo. When I questioned the editor, Max Brantley, he replied, "I linked to where I read it."

Easy enough mistake, but I pressed for attribution, explaining that Politics Daily broke the story. He answered, "I see that now, as will anyone who opens the link. I rarely dig into the chain of sources on blog links, particularly when I use so little of the content."

He finally gave Politics Daily credit for the story but refused to link to the original source.

Journalism professors say this is a no-no.

"I think a media outlet is absolutely duty bound to link to stuff that has already been reported elsewhere," says Mike Lyons, a former reporter for the Associated Press and now an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "We would have expected them to do that in the 'old media world,' by giving credit where credit was due and attributing the original report. Why would that change?"

Reuters did not do so. Its reporter wrote a lengthy story but never credited Politics Daily as the first outlet to report the Palin trademark applications. The Reuters story spread quickly and landed in many print publications across the world. Reuters did add new information to the story, reporting that Palin now has a new attorney handling the trademark issue. (Van Flein now works for U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona with strong tea party ties.) The Reuters reporter didn't reply to my e-mail.

"Even contemporary journalism ethics would require that an outlet credit another organization for a story if it is first reported there," says Richard J. Goedkoop, professor of communication at LaSalle University. "To do otherwise might be considered plagiarism, or at the least, unprofessional."

And now to the Associated Press. The AP always requires a citation from other publications that quote a story by the wire service. The cited reference cannot be more than a paragraph or so of AP's original story and the wire service is a stickler for demanding credit.

But when AP reported the trademark story, no credit was given. I e-mailed the Alaska bureau chief and explained the situation. He agreed that Politics Daily should have been cited and said he would correct it in an updated version of the story.

He made the change, but it was the last sentence in the story. Later, a small victory did arrive from Traci Carl, the AP's West Editor, wrote in an e-mail, "You are right. The Associated Press should have give you credit for breaking the Palin trademark story, and we should have put it higher in the story. We will do so in the future."

The Internet is a big, big place and I'm beginning to feel a bit like Sisyphus. Click click click. I love the Internet, but every now and then I miss the thud of a rolled-up newspaper landing on my doorstep. It was firm and final and certainly unsearchable. What we called "tomorrow's kitty litter box liner" was a curse, but maybe it was a blessing, too.
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Why are you still trying to infer that ethics and "journalism" still coexist? That arrangement went south a long. long time ago when psuedo journailists began fabricating news story (Does the New York Times come to mind?), or using their leftis bias to slant their articles according to their views. A good example is this piece which is about attribution, but the real intent was a veiled smear against Sarah Palin.
Writers of your ilk still refuse to 'fess up .... but Sarah Palin was more quailified and competent than BO to be president.
Still, God bless her, Mrs. Palin still stirs up the liberal-communist-nazi-progressive-leftist nexius as they are so fearful of her that they continue to try to belittle her.
Incidently, Miz Parker, accomplished journalistic style still mandates people be addreesed by title and name throughout the article. For exapmple, you may refer to the subject as Mrs. Palin, or Gov. Palin - or even Sarah Palin (although people of your ilk would never be on such friendly terms with her), but simply as "Palin". The exception to this rule might be to call BO simply "Obama".

February 09 2011 at 3:10 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

this is exactly what makes so many people who blog or comment on stories get things so wrong. They are too lazy to find the source material themselves and instead rely on 2nd hand information as truth and then work themselves up into a frenzy over wrong information.

February 09 2011 at 10:57 AM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply

Credit must be given to the primary source, and factual information should be the rule of the day, bar none. Moreover, lazy and sloppy journalism must not be tolerated...

February 09 2011 at 8:32 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Rogell's comment

I think the problem is not quite so innocent. Journalists or their employers are only too ready to engineer an article to suit their own agenda, and that is exactly what they do. A slanted word here and another there. They really don't want people to see the original article. The worst scenario of all is the "medical" reports in this country. Journalists can make the results of anything be whatever they want. I always read the last part of these "reports" first.

February 09 2011 at 11:34 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

As Glenn Beck has said, true journalism appears dead in this country. Bias and prejudice is apparent in most print and electronic media. There was an interesting book written a number of years ago entitled "All The News That Fits". In it, a former editor for the New York Times described how, if a story did not fit their editorial viewpoint, the Times would kill the story. He was lamanting, even then, about the demise of ethics in journalsm.
I personally witnessed much of this type of news control over the years. For example, as an ardent pro-lifer, I read an article about Joseph Mengeles, the Auswitch 'Angel of Death' in the international edition of the New York Times.
Becasue we compare the abortion holocaust with the German one, a single paragraph caught my eye.
The writer, who was in Brazil, mentioned that Mengele was subsequently arrested in Brazil for doing an illegal abortion ... but he showed up for his trial with a sachel of cash and, for some reason, was found not guilty. That paragraph was, somehow, omitted from the US editions.
Then there was, to the credit of the ombundsman, a four part series in the Los Angeles Times which verified then reportrd on the amount of pro-abortion bias in most news sources.
The real world today is that most psuedo journalists can no long be tusted.

February 09 2011 at 3:28 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

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