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Editorial: Not forAttribution

Here in the print (and digital) world, we try to give credit where it’s due. If a competitor beats us on a big scoop and we’re playing catch-up on the story, we believe in acknowledging, in plain English, that the competition had it first—even though typing that “was previously reported in” sentence is as much fun as a Carrot Top-Pauly Shore double bill.

Print media is mixed when it comes to how well they cite a competitor who had a story first; the best of them tend to bury an attribution in the second to last paragraph of their story. The nation’s so-called paper of record had this lesson reinforced a decade ago when a scrappy downtown Manhattan newspaper called The Villager took The New York Times to task for more than two dozen Villager stories that were followed in short order by a similar Times story, with no attribution given. It wasn’t plagiarism, but it sure looked as though the Old Gray Lady was getting a bunch of her ideas for local stories from the little weekly. A Times editor was quoted in The Villager, saying his employer “seemed to show an unhealthy reliance on prior reporting in The Villager.”

TV news is a whole separate matter. How often do you see a story on your local newscast whose genesis clearly came from the newspaper you read that morning? Hopefully the station added some new material to the report. But either way, how often does the station give credit when someone else clearly came up with, and executed, the idea?

Stations, on occasion, will credit the paper— especially if they happen to have a content or marketing partnership with it. They don’t, as a general rule, credit the station across the street. “We cite other media to a fault,” says a news director at one market-leading station. “But we don’t cite other stations.”

Why is that?

“TV’s too competitive,” he admits. “We never give them anything.”

Television news may not even be the guiltiest. As one journalism professor tells us, “Radio is way worse.”

Attribution is a tricky business. Keep in mind that media ethics guru Jim Romenesko resigned from the prestigious journalism think tank Poynter Institute in 2011 after Poynter published a story about “questionable attribution” in his posts. Further clouding the matter in television, stations often get story tips from the Associated Press—the pooled efforts of scores of newspapers— where no attribution is expected, or given.

Newspapers, still enjoying vast newsgathering advantages despite heavy downsizing, continue to set the news agenda in numerous media markets. As one broadcast news director sees it, another reason not to attribute the source of a story is that, with so little original reporting on the air, stations would be attributing all day long.

In truth, the majority of viewers don’t care who had a story first—certainly not as much as the journalists who keep score of their (and the competition’s) scoops. But in the social media world, where something that sees first light on Twitter can end up—unconfirmed, uncorroborated, perhaps erroneous— leading off the late news, local TV news managers can start to build up credibility with viewers, and show true transparency, by letting them know where a tip came from, and that they have vetted it.

“Just because another media organization reported it doesn’t mean you have to pick it up and run with it,” says Bob Sullivan, VP of content at Scripps. “In the age of social media, more and more people are just piggybacking.”

Sullivan has reason to smile these days: Scripps stations claimed two of the four elite annual Peabody Awards given to TV stations last week. Where were the KMGH Denver reporters when they found out they had won for the series “Investigating the Fire,” about a controlled burn by the Colorado State Forest Service that jumped its boundaries, destroyed homes and killed three? At the State Capitol, following up with family members of the deceased as they continue to seek restitution.

That’s not about aggregating the hottest news content from your competitors. That is enterprise reporting.

No attribution required.