News next: a journalism teacher's diary

January 3, 2013

The Times steals a story

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:28 am
Tags: , ,

In May, the public editor of The Times published a well-deserved rebuke to the newsroom for using the work of others without acknowledgement. The Times, he wrote,

can take a complex and difficult issue and, with its unmatched reporting resources, pull together in-depth work that tells a complete story to a vast audience.

But what about the other, smaller news organizations and independent journalists who got there ahead of The Times, breaking important elements of the story first, laboring in the face of intense community opposition? No credit went to them in The Times’s series.

Let’s be clear. Copy-cat news isn’t plagiarism. But if you’re guided to a story or to an idea to pursue by someone else’s work, an acknowledgment is common courtesy, especially if your hat-tip can give legitimacy to the embattled reporter who set you on the trail.

On Facebook, I posted about my own experience, saying that “as editor of The Riverdale Press, I grew accustomed to seeing our stories and those of other community papers in the Metro section. More recently, as editor of Voices of NY, I read many of the stories in Jewish news outlets that helped The Times craft its excellent blockbuster series on abuse in the Orthodox community. Good for Arthur Brisbane for raising the issue publicly.”

That post brought a raft of comments from journalists who had been stung to see their work used without acknowledgment. Wrote David Goldiner of the Jewish Daily Forward:

We broke many of the stories….especially charles hynes’ disgraceful (and surely illegal) blanket policy of refusing to identify orthodox jewish sex abuse suspects.

Karyn Miller-Medzon, who started her career at The Press and is now a producer at Boston’s public radio station WBUR added:

I remember this happening so many times during my years at the Press. There was one story in particular, about lead in the water pipes in homes in Riverdale and Kingsbridge that we ran, that lead the Metro section in the times a few days later. At the time I was in disbelief. I got used to it.

That got a sarcastic riposte from a friend of hers:

Of course, no public radio program ever decided what was news based on what was printed in the New York Times.

Commenting on the Times website, a former TV reporter agreed:

If you want to know what is going to be on television news in three days, read the Times and the WSJ today. The reporters are handed a copy of the story and off they go.

And, of course, they’re right. With its still-huge news staff and its commitment to serving as the paper of record, The Times does set the reporting agenda for many.

The Times’ status makes it different, argued former Press managing editor Tom Watson.

There’s a strong disproportionality between the mighty NYT and a feisty community newspaper, which to break a big story, spends a huge % of its reporting resources over a period of time. That’s real commitment and the product shouldn’t be lifted (like we’ve all had it done). And if we’re honest about it, having our exposes picked up by the Times for wider distribution is a big win for a swashbuckling weekly – not just for the attention but because it’s more likely to influence public policy. And getting the proper credit is part of that.

Mary Beth Pfeiffer, the award-winning investigative reporter at The Poughkeepsie Journal added another example:

Been there too. NYT editorial based on a story only I wrote; NYT articles that failed to credit.

But maybe public editors make a difference, she speculated, and word in the newsroom that Brisbane was taking on the subject had led to a change:

That is, until last week, two days before the Brisbane piece. Hmmmm. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/nyregion/us-cites-medicaid-overpayments-to-new-york-state.html

Smaller news outlets are guilty of purloining stories too, pointed out Jordan Moss, founder of the Bronx News Network and former editor of the Norwood News, serving neighborhoods in the Northwest Bronx.

It wasn’t just the Times (particularly the City section) but Bronx News 12 that regularly used the Norwood News (and still does I’m sure) as a free AP Wire that refused to credit the publications they got their stories — and sources! — from. In fact News 12 would occasionally call me and ask me for the phone numbers of sources. I would always say they could only have it if they promised to credit us. The reporters were never able to do that.

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