Bending ethics with borrowed words

The Monitor's language columnist ponders her recent adventures in the world of public domain.

Whose words these are I think I know.
He does not share the money, though.
For all these websites borrow words
And will not spend for research, no.

No, Robert Frost never wrote that. What he did write I was able to round up, though, in 0.43 seconds with the help of Google. How did we live before the Web?

Of late I've been working on a (non-Monitor) editorial project in which we're drawing largely on materials in the public domain. And what a domain it is. Isn't it wonderful how much stuff there is out there? And isn't it awful?

It's striking how much material gets picked up from, typically, US government websites and simply republished, with no attribution, by various online publishers. I find pages and pages of the State Department's Background Notes on various countries, for instance, reproduced verbatim.

The problem here isn't legal or technical. The materials I'm referring to are largely in the public domain, produced by your tax dollars and mine. My issue has more to do with ethics.

What are the hallmarks of integrity in journalism, and publishing generally? Careful writers anchor their communications in time and place. Back in the days when schoolchildren were taught letter writing, they learned that one of the "parts of a letter" is the heading, which includes an address and a date. These two elements correspond closely to a news reporter's dateline, which signals where he or she gathered the information, and the folio line of a newspaper, which gives the date of publication.

The Web does this even better. An issue of a newspaper typically provides a single day as the "publication date." But an online article typically has a specific time, as well as date, of posting.

When was this page last updated? Who's publishing this? Is there a byline? Does an actual live human being take responsibility for these words as author, in addition to the responsibility a publisher takes? Is the source authoritative, so that it still has value even if it contains some ancillary errors? (Confidential to US State Department – one of your Web pages on the founding of the United Nations has Franklin Roosevelt asking for a seat at the world body for each of the 50 states.)

There are technical reasons why Web publishing is likely to be editorially sloppier than print publishing. But the line isn't really between "young people get their information online" and "fuddy-duddies still read newspapers." The line is between "stuff online, borrowed from wherever, or maybe made up out of whole cloth" and "material that is anchored in certain journalistic conventions, whether it appears online or on paper."

Even if we solve the problems of attribution, sourcing, anchoring in time and place, and authorship, though, we've still got a larger problem: How do we find new economic models for paying the cost of original research?

The ads for teeth-whitening and other personal enhancement sit incongruously on some of the most policy-wonkish websites. They remind me of the good old days, when the department store and supermarket ads underwrote the cost of news bureaus in state capitals, in Washington, and abroad.

The information wants to be free. But the on-the-ground reporting needs to be paid for.

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