Here's How to Use Attribution to Avoid Plagiarism in Your News Stories

Recently I was editing a story by a student of mine at the community college where I teach journalism. It was a sports story, and at one point there was a quote from one of the professional teams in nearby Philadelphia.

But the quote was simply placed in the story with no attribution. I knew it was highly unlikely that my student had landed a one-on-one interview with this coach, so I asked him where he had gotten it.

"I saw it in an interview on one of the local cable sports channels," he told me.

"Then you need to attribute the quote to the source," I told him. "You need to make it clear that the quote came from an interview done by a TV network."

This incident raises two issues that students often are unfamiliar with, namely, attribution and plagiarism. The connection, of course, is that you must use proper attribution in order to avoid plagiarism.

Attribution

Let's talk about attribution first. Any time you use information in your news story that doesn't come from your own firsthand, original reporting, that information must be attributed to the source where you found it.

For example, let's say you're writing a story about how students at your college are being affected by changes in gas prices. You interview lots of students for their opinions and put that in your story. That's an example of your own original reporting.

But let's say you also cite statistics about how much gas prices have risen or fallen recently. You might also include the average price of a gallon of gas in your state or even across the country.

Chances are, you probably got those numbers from a website, either a news site like The New York Times, or a site that specifically focuses on crunching those kinds of numbers.

It's fine if you use that data, but you must attribute it to its source. So if you got the information from The New York Times, you must write something like this:

"According to The New York Times, gas prices have fallen nearly 10 percent in the last three months."

That's all that's required. As you can see, attribution isn't complicated. Indeed, attribution is very simple in news stories, because you don't have to use footnotes or create bibliographies the way you would for a research paper or essay. Simply cite the source at the point in the story where the data is used.

But many students fail to properly attribute information in their news stories. I often see articles by students that are full of information taken from the Internet, none of it attributed.

I don't think these students are consciously trying to get away with something. I think the problem is the fact that the Internet offers a seemingly infinite amount of data that's instantly accessible. We've all gotten so accustomed to googling something we need to know about, and then using that information in whatever way we see fit.

But a journalist has a higher responsibility. He or she must always cite the source of any information they haven't gathered themselves.

(The exception, of course, involves matters of common knowledge. If you say in your story that the sky is blue, you don't need to attribute that to anyone, even if you haven't looked out the window for a while.)

Why is this so important? Because if you don't properly attribute your information, you'll be vulnerable to charges of plagiarism, which is just about the worst sin a journalist can commit.

Plagiarism

Many students don't understand plagiarism in quite this way. They think of it as something that's done in a very broad and calculated way, such as copying and pasting a news story from the Internet, then putting your byline on top and sending it to your professor.

That's obviously plagiarism. But most cases of plagiarism that I see involve the failure to attribute information, which is a much more subtle thing.

And often students don't even realize they are engaging in plagiarism when they cite unattributed information from the Internet.

To avoid falling into this trap, students must clearly understand the distinction between firsthand, original reporting and information gathering, i.e., interviews the student has conducted him or herself, and secondhand reporting, which involves getting information that someone else has already gathered or acquired.

Let's return to the example involving gas prices. When you read in The New York Times that gas prices have fallen 10 percent, you may think of that as a form of information-gathering. After all, you are reading a news story and getting information from it.

But remember, to ascertain that gas prices had fallen 10 percent, The New York Times had to do its own reporting, probably by talking to someone at a government agency that tracks such things. So in this case the original reporting has been done by The New York Times, not you.

Let's look at it another way. Let's say you personally interviewed a government official who told you that gas prices had fallen 10 percent. That is an example of you doing original reporting. But even then, you would need to state who was giving you the information, i.e., the name of the official and the agency that he works for. 

In short, the best way to avoid plagiarism in journalism is to do your own reporting and attribute any information that doesn't come from your own reporting.

Indeed, when writing a news story it's better to air on the side of attributing information too much rather than too little.

An accusation of plagiarism, even of the unintended kind, can quickly ruin a journalist's career. It's a can of worms you just don't want to open.

To cite just one example, Kendra Marr was a rising star at Politico.com when editors discovered she'd lifted material from articles done by competing news outlets.

Marr wasn't given a second chance. She was fired.

So when in doubt, attribute.