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Romenesko, Quotation Marks and Upholding Standards

Posted by Mark Leccese  November 13, 2011 05:22 PM

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We journalists had a little dust-up in our world last week. Our favorite blogger, Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., ended up resigning his position at Poynter just a few weeks short of his retirement date.

Here’s what happened: An assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, in working on a story about Romenesko, noticed the summaries of news stories and columns that comprised Romenesko’s blog often contained phrases and sentences copied verbatim from the original.

The assistant editor talked it over with Julie Moos, the director of Poynter Online. Moos looked into it. On Thursday she posted a carefully worded essay saying “Jim Romenesko’s posts exhibit a pattern of incomplete attribution.” (Click on the link in that last sentence and to see an example.) Moos wrote:

Though information sources have always been displayed prominently in Jim’s posts and are always linked at least once (often multiple times), too many of those posts also included the original author’s verbatim language without containing his or her words in quotation marks, as they should have.

This style represents Jim’s deliberate choice to be transparent about the information’s origins while using the source’s own words to represent his or her work. If only for quotation marks, it would be exactly right. Without those quotation marks, it is incomplete and inconsistent with our publishing practices and standards on Poynter.org.

Moos concluded by telling the world that, from then on, Romenesko would work under new rules: all of his blog entries would be edited before they were posted (he had been posting straight to the web), and he would be required to use quotation marks around whatever he copied from original sources into his posts. Romenesko offered his resignation. Moos declined it. Romenesko insisted and resigned.

Many in Romenesko’s readership, which includes pretty much every working journalist in the country, came to Romenesko’s defense.

Jeremy Peters, in the New York Times’ Media Decoder Blog, called it “a bizarre spat” and found Romenesko guilty of only “a technical infraction of [Poynter’s] guidelines.” David Carr, the Times’ media columnist, said the whole controversy was “an answer in search of a problem.”

Jack Shafer, the media blogger for Reuters, declared “no harm, no foul.”

[T]he style of his attribution — a link back to the original story, inclusion of the name of the publication and often that of the author — advertise in every possible way that the Romenesko version is the derivative, not the original. Indeed, the Romenesko gestalt has been to steer readers back to the original. His whole enterprise since 1999 has been to alert and direct reader attention to original work.

Still, the lack of quotation marks troubled Shafer: “Like Moos, I think that Romenesko should have placed in quotation marks (or block quotations) copy taken from stories he summarized.” That’s not exactly “no foul.”

Dan Kennedy, Northeastern University journalism professor and author of the Media Nation blog, said Romenesko did “nothing unethical.”

What’s important to keep in mind about Romenesko is that his media-news site functioned as an aggregator, not as a source of original content. I’ve been reading him almost from the start, when he began writing a blog (we didn’t call them blogs back then) called MediaGossip.com while holding down a job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I never really considered what he did to be “writing.” Rather, he found interesting stuff, copied, aggregated and linked out. It was one-stop shopping for people who wanted to know what was going on in journalism.

The entire posse of top brass at the Poynter Institute weighed in — and they did not agree with one another. It makes for interesting reading.

Out of that crew, I agree with Butch Ward, Poynter’s managing director. Quotation marks matter: “I still believe in quotation marks. Yes, that tattoos me (another sign of hipness I’ve not yet adopted) as a member of the old tribe, but it seems important to me to clearly identify to the reader when the words I’m using are mine and when they are not,” Ward wrote.

I’ve read a lot of “everybody knew what he meant” the past two days. Sorry, I haven’t done the interviews to support that claim, and I rarely trust such generalities. Here’s one I do trust: When we use quotation marks along with our attribution, everybody knows what we mean.

Another media blogger I agree with is Eric Wemple at Washingtonpost.com.

Considering that just about everything Romenesko did at Poynter fell under an aggregational banner, it seems a stretch to call it plagiarism. Maybe “aggiarism” works better. Whatever it is, though, it’s something.

It is something indeed. Many journalists have defended Romenesko by arguing that he was an aggregator — a compiler of the work of others. Some popular web aggregators are run by computer program, such as Google News, and some are compiled by people, such as Huffington Post.

I’ve always considered what Romenesko wrote as more of a digest. He gathered up stories from sources readers didn’t have at hand and summarized them, sort of like Reader’s Digest. The difference, obviously, is that Romenesko provided links so we could read the original. That is what the first bloggers, way back when Romenesko started, did.

The quotation marks matter. Even in a digest, I want to know whose words I’m reading. There are standards worth upholding — that are important to uphold — in journalism, whether the media is paper, a cable, a broadcast wave or bits and bytes.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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