media principles

Determining a Conflict of Interest: An Introduction

determining conflict of interestIf you're just blogging or writing an online publication on your own, then you don't have to deal with a conflict of interest all that often. It's easy to recognize within yourself, and you could perhaps use your conflict of interest as part of your branding, as part of building the business, and as part of the message you want to communicate. However, if you have a team helping you with your blog or online magazine, then you need to be able to determine conflict of interest so that you're team doesn't sacrifice the best interest of the publication for their own goals or gain. A conflict of interest is defined as, "a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest." In publishing, determining a conflict of interest involves figuring out if a story, or a source, that you're going to use or to publish is influenced by these secondary interests, such as money, connections etc. Essentially, you don't want to publish or use a source that isn't there based on its merit or its value, but because the writer was paid on the side to cover that topic or is covering something out of personal bias or gain. Here's a quick start to determining a conflict of interest and how to handle one that could jeopardize your blog or magazine.

Figure Out the Two Interests

A conflict of interest cannot exist if there isn't two competing interests. Of course, there are some conflicts i.e. the need to make money versus the desire to tell great stories that aren't all that bad and don't need to be investigated or vetted. Both of those interests are generic, and can work together. The point in figuring out the two interests is if the two conflicting interests cannot be compatible at all.

For example, if one of your writers wants to write about a particular company, and it comes to your attention that the writer currently works for that company, then there's a conflict of interest there that needs to be evaluated. The fact that the writer works at the company could skew the story that's written i.e. it could be overly positive because the writer wants to keep his/her job at the company. In this case, you would need to decide if the company should be covered at all (by another writer, of course) or if the story should be dropped. It's possible that the writer only wants to do the coverage because he/she supports the company, or knows that something will come from that relationship if the story gets published and produces good results for the company.

In this case, these two interests cannot work together. The writer cannot fulfill the interest with the company while fulfilling the interests of the online publication. One needs to be somewhat sacrificed for the other, and it looks like the interests of the online publication would take the hit. Therefore, this is a conflict of interest that needs evaluating and needs to be handled appropriately.

Finding the Conflict

Sometimes, finding the conflict of interest takes a little investigative work. In the previous example, it's unlikely the writer would disclose that s/he works for the company. If s/he does, then that makes things easier and you can decide to have someone else cover the story to ensure that there isn't an overly positive overtone or bias. If the conflict isn't disclosed, but you suspect one to be there, then you might need to ask a few questions or do some additional research. In a future post, we'll go over a few techniques to find hidden conflicts of interests as well as good questions to ask to find these conflicts before the story is written.

4 Ways to Catch and to Prevent Plagiarism

catch and prevent plagiarismNobody wants plagiarism on their blog or online publication, but it can be tough to prevent and harder to catch. It's tempting for some to plagiarize with the ease and wealth of information out there, and a misunderstand of what plagiarism is can mean false positives (and false negatives) upon your editorial review. To make this process as painless as possible, here are four ways to catch and to prevent plagiarism.

Use Google Instead

Instead of relying on those services that not only cost money to use extensively, but aren't as reliable as we need, use Google and search engines instead. Not only is it free every single time (and it probably searches more sites than those services), but it's also a lot easier to check for attribution, to check if the text even needs attribution, or to see if the text should remain as is (such as a direct quote or a definition). It's also easier to check for those other forms of plagiarism, such as taking another's idea and passing it as one's own.

Encourage Writers to Create Original Stories

If  all your publication is doing is rehashing the news and stories of others, then you risk more plagiarism then you may think. As we said our introduction to plagiarism article, just because the text doesn't match anywhere else online doesn't mean that it's not plagiarism. If you're writing about a hot topic, and simply reciting the analysis of others, that is plagiarism unless the ideas are properly cited. To avoid this problem (and to avoid looking like you need to piggyback on everyone else's news stories to build an audience), encourage your writers to find their own news stories, or to come up with their own angles and analysis to current news. It may feel like you need to content out there as soon as possible, but doing that doesn't mean anything if it's just the reinvention of someone else's content and ideas in the first place.

Trust Your Writers

If you make it known that your going to screen every article that comes through, only to send it back because one sentence happens to match another somewhere online (or it includes a phone number or a book title, both of which these services will catch and mark as plagiarism), then you risk scaring away good writers who do good work but are afraid of being accused of plagiarism. You will then be stuck with the writers who will game the plagiarism-catching services to make sure the content passes, or you will get writers who write so poorly that it's not anywhere online (it's so bad that no one else would take their work)  Also understand how easy it is to game the plagiarism software. All one needs to do is change every third or fourth word and it passes. If you trust your writers to do the right thing, then you'll get the writers that are worth trusting. Of course, if you suspect something, use Google.

Also understand that having a sentence or two in one article match another's content somewhere out there isn't going to hurt your search engine rankings and isn't going to get you blacklisted. Your site isn't going to make anyone mad by doing that. Relax, and worry about providing awesome content to your readers instead of pleasing the search engines. Search engines don't read your articles or buy your products anyway.

Set a Policy and Make Your Writers Aware of It

It doesn't help if only you know what plagiarism is and your writer's don't. This will only lead to misunderstandings. If you don't yet have a policy on plagiarism, set one and let your writer's know what this policy is and what counts as plagiarism. If you do have one, then make sure this is something everyone understands and is held accountable for when they join the team. Not holding people to the policy is just as bad, if not worse, then not having one at all.

Plagiarism 101 for Blogs and Online Publications

catching plagiarismPlagiarism is the cardinal sin of online writing and publishing. No one wants it to happen on their website because it ruins credibility, quality, and search engine rankings. It's understood to be a huge ethical problem. However, with the Internet, it's easier than ever to plagiarize while being just as difficult to catch it or to stop it. Here's what every blogger or online publication needs to know about plagiarism, and what constitutes plagiarism:

So, What Is Plagiarism?

According to Wikipedia, plagiarism is:

"the mere copying of text, but also the presentation of another's ideas as one's own, regardless of the specific words or constructs used to express that idea". Meaning, in order for text to be considered plagiarized, it needs to be a copy or close copy of the text AND lack attribution to the original author or source"

Yes, I copied and pasted that definition verbatim from the Wikipedia. But it's not plagiarism as I attributed the definition, placed the definition in quotes, and provided a hyperlink to the very web page I pulled the definition from. A mere word-for-word copy is NOT plagiarism, I repeat, it is NOT plagiarism. It only counts if it is not properly attributed and the author is trying to pass the words and/or ideas as one's own. There are many times when a word-for-word copy would be perfectly appropriate, or even preferable, such as a definition (especially a long or technical one), a direct quote, or a set of statistics.

Why are Plagiarism Detection Services Bad?

This distinction is important to remember because many plagiarism detection services can only detect blatant word-for-word copies of text and don't take those nuances into account when looking at a block of text. Services like Copyscape and Plagium would say that most of the above paragraph is plagiarism, despite the fact that I attributed the definition, quoted the definition (showing that I didn't write those words and that I am 'quoting' someone else), and provided a link to the exact web page I found the definition.

The word-for-word copy also doesn't account for another form of plagiarism: taking another's idea without attribution. I can take someone's public policy idea, change around enough words to pass these services, and then write about the idea as if I came up with it all on my own. It's also possible to pass these services by changing every third or fourth word, so with plagiarism detection services, it's important to exercise human judgement and intuition when evaluating an article. It's also important to let your writer's know that passing these services isn't enough, and ought to know the difference as well.

In our next post, we'll offer a few ways to catch plagiarism. In the meantime, you need to exercise your judgement by knowing that needs to be credited and what doesn't. Knowing this will make easier to

What Needs, and Doesn't Need, Credit or Attribution

Here, then, is a brief list from the Purdue Online Writing Lab of what needs to be credited or documented:

  • Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person, face to face, over the phone, or in writing
  • When you copy the exact words or a unique phrase
  • When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • When you reuse or repost any electronically-available media, including images, audio, video, or other media

Things that don't need documentation or credit, also taken from the Purdue Online Writing Lab's page on plagiarism, include:

  • Writing your own lived experiences, your own observations and insights, your own thoughts, and your own conclusions about a subject
  • When you are writing up your own results obtained through lab or field experiments
  • When you use your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc.
  • When you are using "common knowledge," things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (but not historical documents)
  • When you are using generally-accepted facts, e.g., pollution is bad for the environment, including facts that are accepted within particular discourse communities, e.g., in the field of composition studies, "writing is a process" is a generally-accepted fact.

What a Koch Brothers Newspaper Purchase Would Mean for News

Koch Brothers newspaper purchase It's rumored the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch are considering a purchase of the Tribune Co. a media conglomerate that includes titles such as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun. Although neither the Koch Brothers, or their spokesperson, have confirmed or denied the rumor, such a possibility is a dangerous one if it were to become reality. Here's what we think a Koch Brothers newspaper purchase would have on the news industry and the news we get:

Further Consolidation Would Decrease News Quality

Information from diverse, competitive, and independent sources is vitally important to the health of a democracy, and a Koch Brothers newspaper purchase would only consolidate the media further and decrease the diversity, competitiveness, and independence of our news and its sources. We already don't hear enough about what's going on outside of the United States, and the facts that affect the issues. We don't need more of the same. Just how consolidated is the media already? Here's a quick rundown of who owns what, according to Common Cause:

Viacom owns CBS; General Electric owns NBC; Disney owns ABC; and News Corporation owns Fox Broadcasting Company.  ABC's corporate parent is the Walt Disney Company.

Disney owns 10 television stations, 50 radio stations, ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, Discover magazine, Hyperion publishing, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Film Corp.  Viacom owns 39 television stations, 184 radio stations, The Movie Channel, BET, Nickelodeon, TV Land, MTV, VH1, Simon & Schuster publishing, Scribner, and Paramount Pictures.  General Electric owns 13 television stations, CNBC, MSNBC, and Bravo.  News Corp. owns 26 television stations, FX, Fox News Channel, TV Guide, the Weekly Standard, New York Post, DirecTV, the publisher HarperCollins, film production company Twentieth Century Fox and the social networking website MySpace.

Do we really need (or want) the Koch Brothers in the mix?

The Koch Brothers Don't Need More Influence

The brothers' spent hundreds of millions in the 2012 election. Granted, they did not get the results they wanted, but that doesn't mean their money doesn't carry a big stick and influence a few people (okay, many people). Not only don't the Koch Brothers need newspapers and televisions stations to their arsenal, but adding newspapers and television stations would give them much more power to influence than they already have. Newspapers may be a dying species, but they certainly aren't a discredited species. Newspapers would give these two men much more ability to spread their message than ever before, and with much more credibility than ever before. This opens up the possibility that the news these entities deliver will not be the same, or will not be an honest reflection of what's happening in the world. The Los Angeles Times may end up with a new owner, but who that new owner is won't change the minds of those who read the LA Times. Most of those people will still think it's a great paper, and might not notice a shift in content and stance (presuming there will be a shift in content and stance if the Koch Brothers were to own these newspapers and television stations).

Overall, a Koch Brothers newspaper purchase would be detrimental for news. It doesn't need further consolidation, especially consolidation into the hands of the rich and powerful. The Koch Brothers have also demonstrated that they will use their assets to affect change in policy and in who gets to be in government, and having news entities has assets will only better enable them to do those things (whether the idea of the Koch Brothers changing policy or deciding who gets to be in government is a good one or not is debatable). Not sure if the purchase can be stopped, or if allowing someone else to make the purchase is necessarily better, but a Koch Brothers newspaper purchase isn't good at all.

How to Determine What Your Audience Needs to Know

what your audience needs to knowWhen covering news stories, whether they are niche news stories or general interest stories, it's important to be able to determine what your audience needs to know versus what they want to know. The easy way is to write about anything and everything that will generate clicks, sell ad space, and be shared online. We're not saying that strategy doesn't work, and it's an okay strategy if you want to be come a tabloid or a gossip magazine. However, if you want to be better than that, and to write about news that matters with tact and professionalism, then understanding the difference between needing to know, and wanting to know, is crucial. Here's how to determine what your audience needs to know:

Determine Your Audience

No, you actually don't want everyone in the world who has Internet access as a reader. There's no direction to that, and you can't please everyone all the time. So, make it a point to determine your audience and to create the persona of your ideal reader. This makes easier to figure out what your audience's needs are, and what they need to know. Sure, there's a lot of things they want to know, and there are also a lot of things that a lot of people want to know, but not necessarily your audience.

For example, St. Louis-based Delux Magazine does a good job of this. Their ideal reader is the affluent African-American, or the AAA, who is into luxury and lives a high-end lifestyle. These are people who aren't necessarily concerned with Kim Kardashian, Grumpy Cat, or Rush Limbaugh's latest comments. However, they do care as to what Nick Cannon and Nelly are up to, as well as the latest fashion and the hottest nightclubs in St. Louis.

Newsjacking is Okay

Newsjacking is the process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real-time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself. Therefore, Kim Kardashian by herself may not matter to Delux Magazine's audience. However, if she's shooting a cool commercial with a hot brand in St. Louis, that'll make a difference. If she's showing up to a Delux Magazine event, then that's okay to cover as well. If you can tie a hot news story into your target audience, then by all means make the connection and publish it. Be careful not to stretch it, like when American Apparel used Hurricane Sandy to advertise its sale, or when Kenneth Cole used the Arab Spring to promote its new spring collection.

Don't Go Overboard with the Juicy Details

Running with the Kim Kardashian example, keep juicy and private details out of the story. Let's say that she is coming to your town, or is participating in a major event relevant to your audience. Do you really need to tell your readers where she is staying, and what's in her hotel room, and who she's staying with? Do really need to investigate where she's going and what she's doing before and after the event? Probably not, even though everyone in your audience would love to know. It's important to consider personal privacy when determining stories to write about and the details to include in those stories.

The Kardashian example is easy. How about topics that are a little more difficult, such as a gay bar destroyed in a fire. Do you release the names of deceased patrons? What if you learn a homemaker in the community had been a prostitute many years earlier. Do you run it? If a local judge rents a porn video, is that news? These questions are obviously a lot a tougher, so rushing to publish them because you might be the only one too publish it, or because people will flock to these stories, may be shortsighted.

3 Big Principles for Media Creators

media creation Blogs and online publications are now part of the news industry, major media creators with large audiences and even larger influence. Whether you just started your blog yesterday, or you've been operating your online publication for several years, hopefully you operate by a few principles to ensure that you're providing quality news and quality work. If you don't have principles, or haven't taken the time to think about them, then here are three big principles for committed media creators:

1. Do your homework, and then do some more.

This one refers to both doing the necessary research before starting on an article or blog post, as well as fact checking information before putting it onto your site. It's incredibly easy to find what you need online and even to write a blog post based on what you found online, it's still not the same as making phone calls, digging through paper records, and in-person interviews. Do these when you can so as to avoid assuming something is happening or creating unnecessary commotion, as in the case of this blog post, where it would have been very simple to ask a few questions and to talk to the right people.

2. Get it right, every time.

Michael Arrington, founder and former editor of TechCrunch, once said, “Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap.” Sure, getting out first has its benefits: increased clicks, the credibility of breaking a good story first, increased page views. And sure, if you get something wrong, you can amend the article or issue a correction at the bottom where no one might see it. Plus, if you do get it wrong, it's highly likely you won't lose your blog or online publication.

However, you don't want to make getting it first and making mistakes a habit. It's only a matter of time before you get more than a fact, or a name wrong, but an entire news story. A recent example of this is the Google purchase of ICOA, which was picked up by many media outlets before it was found to be a hoax. Let's not forget the ridiculous example of the LAPD purchasing jet packs, which is a perfect example of why principle number one needs to be followed. We can go on and on with fake news stories, but our point has been made here.

3. Practice and demand transparency.

This is one of the newer and more controversial principles for media creators. Before the Internet, transparency was not something that the audience demanded from newspapers and the radio. Transparency isn't necessarily something that's required of every blog and online publication today. However, if your blog or online publication does maintain a specific world view or bias, then that should be clear and revealed to readers. Transparency would also mean admitting to conflicts of interest as well as admitting to mistakes and corrections when they happen.

Do you have any media principles of your own to share? If so, please share them in the comments!

Related Links:

How to Treat Your Blog as a Business

Covering and Publishing a Beat

How to Write a Press Release for Your Blog