By Catherine Komp
Many of you know the feeling: you spend weeks or months on a story, building trust with sources, pouring over documents and polishing revisions. You publish an exclusive and it gets a lot of attention from your audience. Other media outlets jump on the story. But some of them don’t credit you, not even a whisper of your news organization or a deeply buried link.
You might fire off an email to the editors or post something on X, hoping to catch the attention of fans and fellow journalists. But, there’s often not much recourse, especially when newsrooms lack clear policies on the matter.
“News organizations do not give other news organizations credit nearly as much as they should,” said Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. “And they often will report something as if it is just this generally known fact when the only reason that it’s known is because a reporter was on scene. That reporter should be credited with that information.”
It’s one thing when a well-resourced national outlet swoops in and fails to acknowledge local journalists who’ve been on a story for years. But it stings a bit differently when local media pulls the same move on each other. And both are happening far too often, McBride told NC Local.
“This is particularly true for broadcasters, both radio and television, right? Because they use the excuse of, ‘Well, I have a very limited amount of time.’ And it’s like, well, you got plenty of space on the web, and you don’t even credit on the web. So, bullshit, right? But also, I bet you could find some time in that [on-air] story to say at least the publication’s name.”
It’s a big contradiction in this industry. While students are taught in j-school to always cite their sources, McBride points out the unwritten rules of attribution can change once you’re inside a newsroom, especially one that’s competitive.
“From the minute that I was a baby daily reporter, I was encouraged to state things in what I call the voice of God — as if it was just a generally known thing and to not cite sources,” said McBride. “Although we say ‘cite your sources,’ we also, from a very early stage in a journalist’s career, teach them to do the opposite.”
How often is this happening in North Carolina? In the name of semi-transparency, the idea for this story came from a NC Local reader and news editor who’s seen their original reporting and that of others go uncited in subsequent media reports. We’re not going to name names, but wanted to give the topic some sunlight and offer some guidance and resources.
“As a journalist, credibility is everything, it’s important to never do anything that can put a journalist’s credibility in jeopardy,” said Joseph. “Once journalistic integrity is questioned or lost, it is nearly impossible to get it back. As journalists we are held to a higher standard, and must act accordingly.”
Beyond ethics and a professional courtesy, UNC Journalism Professor Ryan Thornburg says it’s important for your audience to understand how stories develop.
“Something I teach my students — you’ve got to look at the work of others and build on the work of others,” said Thornburg. “It’s important for young journalists who haven’t built sources to spend time in the community, to look as rigorously as they can at what has been reported about the topic.”
A failure to credit the stories that came before yours raises another issue, says Thornburg. It doesn’t acknowledge the time, energy and resources invested by another news outlet. But he adds, if another news organization starts to poke more holes, ferret out additional facts and move the original story forward, that’s something that also benefits the local community.
“There’s no shortage of stories to be told and voices to be heard,” said Thornburg. “The more collaborative news organizations can be, the better. There are so many stories where if everybody did a little piece of it, the people of North Carolina would be served better. Building on each other and celebrating each other’s success is a better look in general.”
Thinking about having this conversation with your newsroom or developing a policy? Here’s some guidance to get you started.
Why should you make the case to your newsroom about establishing a crediting policy?
McBride has a straightforward answer: “If you want to build a culture of intellectual honesty in your newsroom, you should demonstrate that intellectual honesty to your audience.”
When should you credit another news outlet? Anytime you’re relying on or building upon the reporting, investigation, or information obtained by another outlet.
Kelly McBride says to watch for these types of phrases in follow-up reporting: “a school district in disarray” and “well-known problems with the police department.” Who originally documented the programs? Include their name and cite their work.
How should you credit another news outlet? At a minimum, include the name of the outlet, and in all digital versions, a link to the original story. For substantial enterprise reporting, include the journalist’s name as well.
What if a reporter/editor neglects to credit the outlet’s original story? McBride says in these cases it’s appropriate to update the story to add attribution (eg “as first reported by…”) and an editor’s note to say that the article was clarified.
Are there gray areas? In breaking news situations, reporters at different outlets may be relying on the same sources and receiving the same information within a short period of time. If all of your information is original, no need to cite the outlet that got it up first. If you’re relying on any unique information from that outlet, cite them.
What if you get scooped? If your story is based 100% on your own work, McBride says you don’t have to acknowledge that someone else beat you to it. But she says editors and reporters should also weigh the power differential. If you’re the larger publication that’s going to see wider distribution of the story, you should consider citing the smaller publication that published first. “If you’re the big 800 pound gorilla, you want to give a nod to the little guy, especially if they beat you,” said McBride.
What’s this I’m hearing about expanding credit? Internally, a growing number of news organizations are going beyond the traditional byline and including credit for editors, data journalists, social/audience staff, fact-checkers, designers and others who contribute to story process and final product. McBride’s team does this with the NPR Public Editor newsletter. For more resources and examples, check out the Expanding Credit Project, a partnership between Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Innovation in Focus and Vox.
NC Local plans to highlight more best practices in the months ahead. What do you want to learn about? Get in touch at email@example.com.
Related resources and reading:
➡️ Alex Sujong Laughlin: Credit where it’s due
➡️ Nevada Independent: The ethics of crediting