On Cherry-picking Other People’s Work

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 8.57.37 AMJoint Journalism Historians Conference, March 24, 2007

Prof. Elliot King, Loyola University, convener,

New York University, March, 2007

Keynote address: Prof. Brooke Kroeger  –  New York University

In honor of the particular melding of historians and journalism educators at this conference, it seemed appropriate to devote the occasion to a little-discussed point of intersection between the two; and that would be the conventions journalists have developed over time to deal with the attribution of scholarly source material.

As a starting premise, I would say, it is a safe bet that reporters, essayists or reviewers who write on deadline about scholarly themes have not spent months or years in archives sifting through dusty, fragile reams of primary documents. Nor are they expected to have gone as deep as historians go into the primary material that is ever so more available for the pajama-clad on their home computers in retrievable digital form. There is no shame in this, of course, because it’s simply not the nature of the journalist’s work.

When it comes to the reporting that is reading, we expect journalists, in their dealings with scholarly material, to embrace their inner parasite. Their job is to pinpoint work in any given field, to reflect on it, to penetrate it and to synthesize it. As readers, we are most interested in having journalists bring to our attention the research that provides a clear “trail of evidence,” in the American Historical Association’s phrase. Then, in the interest of immediate deadlines and limited space – the journalist’s inevitable lot – we expect them to do the artful deed: to freely absorb from these scholarly sources the necessary background and historical context to explain a subject well and to incorporate it into their stories and essays and reviews the background knowledge they have gleaned, as well as the bits and pieces of that research that are most salient to their own work and that most clearly and imaginatively illustrate what they as journalists writing for a wide readership are endeavoring to convey.

As we know, being able to do this skillfully is a true mark of true journalistic excellence. For as we teach our students, what separates the average from the outstanding is the amounting of the deepest possible knowledge in the time allotted:

One: It lends confidence and authority to the writing;

Two: It generate new ideas about and novel approaches to the subject matter; and

Three: IT creates the possibility of sharing widely with readers the little-known, hard-won ideas, research, or even the kind of “ah-hah”-producing verification that only previously unknown facts can provide.

This practice of appropriating other people’s scholarship is not in the least bit naughty. It is an essential aspect of the journalistic enterprise, practiced at the most sophisticated level.

No, that is not the issue. What I’d like to explore with you today is how information gleaned from scholarly works takes form in the journalist’s work. Having spent significant periods of my own life creating scholarship, appropriating scholarship or having it appropriated from me, I have a few thoughts on this.

As I pondered what I would say today, the image that kept recurring was of a now-defunct chain of self-service gas stations I encountered about 35 years ago on the road from Kansas City to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Above each of these stations was a huge horizontal bright green and yellow sign that bore the name of the chain: Hep-Ur-Sef. In the local twang, hepyurself.

Now, again, I don’t mean in any way to suggest that for a journalist or critic to help him or herself to someone else’s research is somehow a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Writers working in a literary-but-journalistic vein actually serve their readers well when they do this extra-credit homework.

What’s more, it almost always pleases the scholars, who are almost always glad to see their work more widely disseminated, with the prospect of it taking root in the wider culture. Take the biographer Stacy Schiff, who has won the Pulitzer and been named a Pulitzer finalist for two of her three biographies. “You expect your research to be recycled,” she told me in an email exchange a while back. “That is precisely the point of the exercise.”

Where I see a problem is the often cavalier treatment of what reappears under new ownership.

In April 2004, when the 60-year-old wreckage of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s missing plane was found off the coast of Marseilles, Schiff’s eponymous 1995 biography of Saint-Exupery instantly became the reporters’ background source du jour. She described what appeared in print as “a big feast of cannibalizing without crediting.” She found it so galling, she told me, that she tries very hard not to remember who did it. I’m sure many of you have your own private parlor games built around similar themes, as do I and the reaction probably explains why that giant green-and-yellow sign above those Arkansas pumps so readily came to mind.

“Hep-Ur-Sef” did not mean that the gasoline was free.

Don’t you just love endnotes It’s really a shame they eat so much space in print. Endnotes are tidy. They don’t clutter narratives or disrupt the flow of facts, but they can so elegantly acknowledge the contributions of others to work writers comfortably call their own.

What could be more elastic or precise: “Letter. FG to Smith as cited in Jones, p. 35.” Or, “I am indebted for many primary sources to Jones for his meticulous research.” Or, my favorite, “Jones provided the seed for this insight in a conversation with this author, Jan. 5, 2004.”

Digital publishing over the Internet, could, of course, provide journalists with whole new modes of deploying endnotes, even beyond the usefulness of links. We’d probably have to call them hypertext, but they could serve such a useful function. There would be no risk of gumming up the flow of the narrative with clumsy, obligatory phrases. There would be no need to consume additional reams of paper stock, or to eat into an assignment’s restrictive word count. I don’t see this happening yet as journalism moves more and more aggressively to the digital format, but it would be such a welcome development. But more on this in a bit.

In whichever format the work of writers for newspapers and most magazines and literary reviews appears, when it comes to citing scholarly sources, writers have mostly been left first to their own devices, at least until the editor starts to trim the work down. The standard exception, of course, is the direct quotation, which the prudent continue to quote and attribute exactly. That one involves matters of law, after all. For the rest, with limited space and no legal onus or common standard, we find that several competing attribution conventions have developed over time.

Now I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think any of them can we find catalogued in any specific way in any publication stylebook or ethics guide. You sense that journalists feel a certain freedom from restraint in the re-use of scholarly information that appears bound between covers, especially the more obscure editions.

So what are the current journalistic conventions for attributing scholarly sources?

One: None whatsoever. I know firsthand how common this one is.

Two: Straightforward. The writer cites the source succinctly after each dip into someone else’s significant research, even if he or she has to cite the same source repeatedly, even in a very short piece. You don’t see this one much.

Three: First reference. The writer cites only on first reference and then give no further citations, even of a repeatedly used source. This is fairly typical.

Four: Almost too-elaborate acknowledgment. The writer decides to ignore the challenge that repeated citations presents to storytelling. Though this approach provides the most admirable precision, and is deployed by some I consider the most meticulous, it has a few journalistic downsides. It can make writers appear “schoolgirl-ish,” as the critic Cristina Nehring described it to me; or, as my colleague Susie Linfield suggested, it can open writers up to chiding from editors who see it as a way to subordinate or hide their own ideas behind those of others.

Some writers do, in fact, include attribution religiously in their pieces and then find themselves having to acquiesce to editors’ requests that they delete it in the interest of eliminating wordiness or making space for something “better.”

What this often ends up meaning, of course, is that arcane information gleaned from books under review or from scholarly texts will just appear in the story — as if the information has long been in the public domain or consciousness. This includes such treasures as a scholar’s particular insights into a person or historical event, hard-won nuggets of information, even library road maps to obscure, poorly catalogued, un-digitized finds.

Well, it is a fact. Without the often clunky indications of what came from where, the journalist’s piece may well be easier on the eye and ear. But in journalism, verification is as essential as narrative, perhaps more so. Leaving out attribution can, however unintentionally, create the false impression that what these writers relate is already well-known information, when it actually is not. Or — and I find this unseemly — that their own already considerable effort (we all know what it takes to produce a great or even just a competent piece of journalism, and that shouldn’t be diminished by its reliance on the work of others) that their own considerable creation reflects their personal monster erudition and archival sweat, when it clearly does not.

There is a fifth convention, a popular corrective I call Acknowledgment-by-Code. This one really drives me crazy and here is how it works: Somewhere in an essay, review, or article appears, appears a relatively gratuitous reference to a source that has proved especially useful in the writing of the piece. The name of the source – usually a book or an author’s name – will appear somewhere in the story, attached to a single isolated factoid or some pallid, gratuitous quote. Sometimes the writer will just randomly find a way to wedge the name of the author or the title of the consulted work into the piece anywhere in the middle without any explanatory context, without acknowledgment that it is from where all the juiciest information has emerged. Now from this odd mention, this code, readers are meant to deduce that the journalist has relied heavily on that author or his or her scholarship. This convention is particularly popular because it’s very concise and has the bonus of giving the journalist ethical cover. If challenged, the journalist can say and I will report, has said, “But I gave a credit to the book I used so heavily in my text.”

In contemplating this issue, I interviewed or surveyed more than two dozen biographers and historians. Every single one had a story or several stories like the one Stacey Schiff told about he work on Saint Exupery. Their reactions to the uncredited appropriation in each of these cases ranged from rage, especially when the offense was recent, to the more common shrug. None was willing to be quoted telling tales. None wanted to risk appearing petty or overly possessive or too obsessed with his or her own scholarly minutiae. None had any interest in waging personal attacks against others, or at least, those that did had the good sense to let their agents make that call for them.

In any event, what would be the point of complaining? You can’t copyright ideas, labor, facts or I-got-there-first-even-if-you-have-a-different-source. Scholars have little choice but to take comfort in knowing that their efforts have animated a fresh look at a given subject that for readers so inclined — even those on the slowest Internet connections — may lead right back to the scholarly work all the same.

When I did wire service reporting from London, we had a rule for taking information from the British press. The same fact in three competing newspapers could be treated as common knowledge. Fewer than that meant a separate attribution for each new piece of data. That was a good rule, and we all became reasonably artful at massaging in the sourcing, even in stories of 400 words.

But more provocative thoughts come from the professional historians, whose association only a couple of years ago adopted a revised statement on standards of professional conduct, which journalists need to go to school on. The statement appears in full on the AHA website. <<http://www.historians.org/pubs/Free/ProfessionalStandards.cfm>>

Its definition of plagiarism, chillingly complete, goes well beyond the legal standard. It includes “the limited borrowing, without sufficient attribution, of another person’s distinctive and significant research findings and interpretations.” It condemns as “a violation of the historical record”, as “fraud” and – I love this one — as a “betrayal of trust” the failure to reveal how secondary sources contribute to a given line of argument.

The statement also suggests that the importance of marking well that “trail of evidence” is not just a matter of professional courtesy. It goes beyond professional courtesy. It is a way to provide readers with the tools to evaluate the information and ideas put before them.

For journalistic writing, it really is the flip side of the argument against the use of anonymous sources in news stories, or, say, video press releases that appear on television as legitimate news without their provenance spelled out.

“The trust and respect both of one’s peers and of the public at large are among the greatest and most hard-won achievements . . .” says the AHA. “It is foolish indeed to put them at risk.”

As more publications move to a digital format, how many, I wonder, will adopt an endnote system in hypertext, once they are completely freed of paper’s constraints, if that comes to pass? My pet idea is the carefully crafted 400- 500- or 600- or 1,000-word or 2,000-word story that has not only the typical blue links and art, but hypertext a reader can choose to expose or ignore as the cursor rolls along. The hypertext could cite relevant material not available on the web. It could offer enriching proprietary bonuses – endnotes to resolve the dilemmas I’ve raised. They could add context, nuance, additional sources, counterarguments and all that deeper background and reporting that the story just wouldn’t fit Any piece could become an amazing resource for a general reader. And there would be no excuse for foregoing citation for whatever reason of both the explicit and implicit contributions of historians, biographers and other writers to a journalist’s own work.