It's a childish practice that's all too common in New Zealand newsrooms and if we cared more about our professionalism and our audiences, it'd stop

I was at a journalist's get together recently, and promised to write this post to a group of senior journalists who were fed up with a tradition in New Zealand media that is far from world best practice. You couldn't get away with it in the US or Britain, but it's common practice here. And at the grassroots, many journalists have had enough.

This is about attribution. It's what Sean Fitzpatrick might have called giving full credit where credit's due. See, I did it just then; I attributed that saying – "full credit" – to the former All Black captain who made it famous in his after-match interviews. Easy, huh? Not so in New Zealand newsrooms.

The issue came up at TVNZ recently, when Q+A broke the story about John Key's mining shares. It led both channels' news that night, but if you'd watched TV3's report you'd have had no idea that the story was broken nine hours earlier on TV One's Q+A. There was no mention of that. No credit given to the work that Guyon Espiner did spotting and validating that story.

Let's be clear about this from the outset. The reporter, Adam Hollingsworth did an excellent story, and TV3 only did what a lot of media outlets do night after night, and morning after morning. They're the example in this instance, but I'm not having a crack at them.

TVNZ does it, as do the daily papers, radio, even magazines and so on and so on. Heck, I'm sure I've done it myself over the years. It's most common when it involves a direct competitor. TV One doesn't like to mentioned TV3, APN papers don't like to mention Fairfax, and vice versa. Radio hosts don't like to mention other radio hosts, and on it goes.

The web has been great at giving credit; the ability to link is a huge point of difference and readers love it. But sadly the big news sites are hampered by their traditional media ownership and there are few links to competitors on those sites.

Let me qualify my complaint by saying that it's only sometimes. A lot of work is attributed. One grown-up example was the New Zealand Herald on Wednesday, February 24. Radio Live, TV3 and a magazine I can't recall the name of all had stories attributed to them on the front page. I don't imagine any harm was done to the Herald in that instance, so why does non-attribution happen?

The logic behind non-attribution is simply that to mention the competition and to put them in a favourable light, is to diminish your own brand, to encourage the audience to seek their news elsewhere.

I understand the gut commercial instinct, but I resent its presence in newsrooms and, more practically, I doubt its veracity. If you see mention of another media, do you immediately seek it out? Do you think less of the media you're currently watching, reading or listening to? I didn't lose faith in the Herald that Wednesday.

It's as if journalists and their bosses kid themselves that it's still the 1950s and that audiences don't flit from one network to another, pop off to the web, turn on the radio, delve into a magazine, then see the newspaper... Pretending other media don't exist these days is just, well, pointless.

To stay with the commercial argument for a moment, it doesn't treat your customers with respect either. And long term, it diminishes your product by giving people the reason to doubt its quality.

From a journalistic point of view, it's a childish practice; one that puts a narrow idea of marketing ahead of best practice.

Why's it poor practice? At its heart, because it's dishonest. It's taking credit for something you haven't done; ie breaking the story that you're reporting. And if journalism isn't honest, it's nothing.

It's also not telling your audience the full story, or at least, as much as the story as you're able to tell. You're holding back... most particularly, in these days of interactive news consumption, it's denying people the opportunity to follow the story back to source.

What's more, it insults the journalists whose efforts have broken the story. In this small country we're hardly flush enough with great news media that good journalism – work that's good enough for others to follow up – should be ignored and, to be frank, stolen.

When it is done, it looks professional and courteous, it's transparent, it trusts the audience with more information and empowers them, and therefore builds a greater bond between media and audience at a time when such loyalty is breaking down.

Where I've worked in the US and UK, it's normal to refer to other media. And you know what? Journalists hate it. Not the doing it, but the having to do it. It means they got beaten and it drives them to add to the story, to get their own angle, or a better story, so that they can stop crediting the competitor.

I'd like to think that as New Zealand grows up it'll get over such childish habits. But it'll take journalists taking it seriously to make a change.



Comments (3)

by Conor Roberts on March 12, 2010
Conor Roberts

Tim, agree with what you have to say. I'd add that it's a shame the MSM doesn't give credit to blogs when they break a story.

I've seen the MSM pick up on something that Russell Brown, someone at the Standard, NRT, Farrar or Whale Oil has dug up, and haven't bothered to 'hat-tip' them (to use blog parlance).

Sometimes these bloggers will have spent hours of their own time going back through old news stories to find something someone once said, or they might've put in their own OIAs, analysed a departmental release, or received an incriminating tape. The work is as good as someone in a newsroom could have put together.

‘Citizens initiated journalism’ will only get the credit it deserves when media start giving recognition to a blog for something they might’ve used.

Nicking stuff without referencing where it came from is plagiarism.

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