Who speaks for a website?

Markos Moulitsas at DailyKos this week raised an important issue to which all journalists who cover the Web ought to show greater sensitivity.

Moulitsas complained about a Wall Street Journal article which claimed that Moulitsas’ website held a position on campaign finance reform that is, in fact, the opposite of Moulitsas’ position.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. This summer, Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly attacked DailyKos over selected comments and diaries that appeared on the site, claiming that the site supported those views, while never noting that those posts were from readers who have no financial or editorial relationship with the site.

With thousands of readers posting diaries on the DailyKos website each week, it’s possible to attribute just about any political position to someone on the website. And there’s the key: the attribution ought to be given to the person on the website, and not to the website itself.

The old newspaper/TV newsroom model no longer applies in Web communities such as DailyKos. If a report appears in the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, a reporters at other papers can (and routinely do) attribute that report to “The Wall Street Journal” — no need to provide the byline of the reporter who wrote the piece. That reporter was assigned by the paper to do the piece, paid by the paper and his or her report edited by paper employees. Therefore, any reasonable person can attribute responsibility, indeed, authorship, of that piece to the paper.

That’s not the way copy gets published on DailyKos, or thousands of other Web communities. On DailyKos, a reader signs up for an account and, after a one week wait, can start posting diaries (i.e., a personal blog) to the website. One of the site’s editors might then read it in consideration for linking to it from the site’s heavily-read front page, but there is no other staff editorial review of the diary. DailyKos doesn’t assign topics to readers and doesn’t pay anyone other than a handful of editors and fellows for diaries, according to the site’s FAQ. Unless a diary contains copyrighted material or otherwise violates the site’s rules for posting, it will remain on the site, even if it conflicts with the owner’s political beliefs.

Attributing a report that appears on a site like DailyKos to the site itself is a bit like attributing a CNN report as “cable television reported today….” Online communities often operate as a news medium, rather than a traditionally staffed news publication. Other news reports about these sites, to be fully accurate, should reflect that fact by citing the individual author of information found on the site, rather than just the site itself.

To be fair, I must disclose that this issue is personal to me, because my wife and I have seen this happen to our websites as well. Doing a Google search last week, I found a professional violinist who was promoting his concert tour with a pull quote from a review attributed to my wife’s violin website.

Except that my neither my wife, nor one of the two other paid writers who work for her, wrote the review. It came from a blog that one registered user wrote on the site.

The potential for abuse is, of course, huge. What’s keeping a violinist from posting a blog to the site, reviewing one’s own show, then promoting that show with a favorable review from the site? Or keeping a candidate from claiming an endorsement from DailyKos based on the diaries of campaign workers and other supporters?

That’s why Moulitsas has declared “no one speaks for Daily Kos other than me. Period.”

Journalists ought to respect that, and sharpen their procedures for attributing information from online communities that allow publication from readers, as well as paid staff. Readers have a right to know the source of the information in your story, which demands that you not overlook, or withhold, relevant context about the identity of that source.

Here’s the checklist I propose:

1) When you find information you wish to cite online, note both the author of the information as well as the website upon which it originally appeared.
2) Make a good faith effort to determine the author’s relationship to the site. Read the author’s profile (often linked from the byline), or the “about us” or FAQ section of the site to see if the author of the information is the publisher, editor or other paid representative of the site.
3) If the author is not, the citation of the author’s information should be to “[the author], writing on [the site].” If the author is a paid representative of the site, then the citation should note that relationship, i.e. to “[the author], [the relationship] of [the site].”

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.