The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Web aggregation and no context

A story you might have seen, but maybe not: The Columbia Missourian has dropped professor emeritus John Merrill’s column because it was discovered that he had some information that was unattributed that turned out to be direct lifts from the school’s student-run newspaper, the Maneater. The above link has a look at editor Tom Warhover’s explanation of what went down, but basically Merrill says he forgot to attribute the information and that while it was plagiarism, it was unintentional (read Merrill’s column and compare to the Maneater story).

Obviously, Warhover made the right call, even if it was the tough one. Unless you are a Mizzou person you might not realize how big a figure Merrill is here. He wrote such journalism classics as The Imperative of Freedom and is highly respected both at MU and outside of it.

Being a Web news hound, I immediately went to Google to see if anyone outside of here had picked the story up, and thanks to AP I got 88 hits. The posting on the San Francisco Chronicle site caught my eye because it had a discussion attached to it, mostly people who were disgusted with the situation and demanded he be fired, etc.

Here is a situation where it’s actually a big story here at MU, but when it gets picked up nationally the context is naturally stripped out. One of the pillars of the program is banished from the newspaper for plagiarism, but the quotes in Warhover’s column sound a lot like the John Merrill we know. Apologetic, explanatory, to the point. In addition, it should be noted that what was lifted was some foundational facts and quotes, but the piece itself was purely Merrill’s (which is why Warhover called this more a misdemeanor than a felony in his piece, a point with which I agree). But out on the wire, judging by the reader comments he sounds brash and arrogant to a reader in San Francisco. Worse, there is no note of what was lifted, and that leaves the reader to imagine that the bulk of the piece was lifted (which it wasn’t). Worse, the story makes Missouri look careless on plagiarism by quoting Warhover saying it was a misdemeanor but not providing the crucial context as to why. The context is gone. A pretty important story (and a damn good teaching point) becomes “man bites dog” in a context-less environment.

A big question is whether the way this was handled ultimately a good thing for the School of Journalism. It was worth doing to let the school’s donors know the school is not going to hell in a handbasket, and while I like the whole transparency thing I just don’t see how we come out ahead here. In the public mind, MU’s School of Journalism is represented by the plagiarizing journalism professor because the context is gone. So in the end Warhover’s hands were tied, and while he made the right call there is the Missouri context and the reality of public perception at work here, and they are at odds.

So where did it go wrong? Warhover’s piece was excellent, because in addition to his column he gave the links to both Merrill’s piece and the Maneater story. Also, in a breakout box, the Missourian’s plagiarism policy was printed. This was transparency and informative journalism at its finest; everything a reader needed to get a clear picture was right there.

The problem came at the aggregation level, the minute AP picked up the story and sent it out on the wire. A local story with some deeply embedded local context loses that level of meaning when AP turns a story into a bulletin, especially if the reporter did no additional interviews on this one (and it looks like they didn’t from what I read). We talk about the importance of linking and journalism in the Web 2.0 era, but this is something that AP (and, by extension, aggregators) don’t do well. All the crucial layers of meaning are lost when it becomes a bulletin.

I can’t figure out if this is because of the limited nature of AP pickup or because adding layers means sending people somewhere else. Either way, it isn’t good, but it is a good example of how getting it right can still mean missing the story.

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November 12, 2007 - Posted by | Jeremy Littau

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