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