When News Sourcing is Conflict of Interest

credit: Roger H. Goun

Some days you see yourself as a blithering idiot. Add Nov. 19, 2014 to my confessional. While doing my morning routine, before brain fully engages and random synapses fire fleeting inspirations, I stopped cold with chilling realization about the evils of blog or news site B sourcing A—and only A—or visa versa. What if there is unseen, or even hidden, financial benefit, such as sharing advertising networks? In a way, everyone using Google AdSense already meets that criteria. Consider me the dumb-ass (and you wouldn’t be alone) for not making the connection sooner.

I am a longstanding critic of news, or so-called news, sites sourcing someone else’s reporting. My March 2010 diatribe “The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism” is must-read for any news gatherer regarding responsible sourcing. The topic also gets big treatment in my book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. The four year-old post is free and still relevant, so start there.

Mutual financial benefit moves the sourcing problem from reporting ethics to blatant conflict of interest, whether real or perceived.

Scenario 1: Ad-Networks
I put forth a hypothetical before presenting a real example. Site A and B share the same ad-network provider, which pays them based on metrics like impressions and pageviews rather than what I advocate as the more sensible model of audience metrics—whom, not how many. Site A posts an anonymously-sourced story stating that people living in a house once owned by Apple cofounder Steve Jobs have seen his ghost. Since moving in, they also increasingly have problems with their Windows PCs. Site B sources A without doing any additional news reporting. The story is highly clickable and rakes reads like crazy—for both sites, on the same piece of unverified news, generating beaucoup bucks from the ad-network.

Let’s pull back the hypothetical one level. Site Z is the origin of the anonymously-sourced ghost story. Site A runs a story sourcing Z, while B does the same referring to A. That’s too common a practice—where one news report refers to a secondhand one—and major reason, from a responsible reporting perspective, why I am such a critic. From my 2010 post:

Using a single source is often careless. Referring to another blog or news source as single source is reckless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is negligence. Good journalists are mindful of their sourcing, particularly those sources who aren’t identified. One rampant problem: The increasing number of unnamed single-sourced blog posts or news stories that seemingly countless other blogs link to. Gossip and rumor runs amok masked as news. Let be me clear: Just because everybody is saying some true doesn’t make it that way. It’s my observation that most rumor posts remain uncorrected when later proved to be wrong…

News aggregators and Google economy-driven news pirates are among the worst offenders. I subclassify these two groups into those operations that steal content wholesale and those that rewrite the key elements of blog posts or news stories. For both groups—and a separate class of news blogs—search-driven revenue is the profit motive.

Scenario 2: Content Sharing and Sourcing
Real-world example: Business Insider and Boy Genius Report cross-sourcing and content sharing. Let me state up front, I do not accuse either site of collusion or wrongdoing. My investigation is incomplete. Today, my focus is what I know to be true. Consider this post to be an exercise in process journalism, where the reporter writes what he or she can confirm and uses the story to extend the reporting.

During my morning routine, which includes scanning headlines in Feedly, I clicked a BGR story that sources Business Insider. Finally, the neurons connected. BGR uses BI often and I got to wondering if the practice is mutual and mutually beneficial. Googling, I see 10 stories sourcing BI during the past week.

On the other site, the situation is a wee bit different. BI has a content sharing arrangement with BGR, where whole stories post. Most recently: Four and six days ago. I don’t read Business Insider, otherwise I would have observed this relationship much sooner.

Someone tell me why BGR sourcing BI isn’t inherently conflicted? Journalists, and even bloggers, should avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. At the least, this example qualifies as perceived, and I am confident that with a bit more reporting other sites would be discovered—and perhaps the extent of relationship here.

I haven’t yet contacted either website, in part as an exercise in process reporting. I’d like to see what information comes my way from posting this much, while doing further investigation into a widespread practice. Content sharing or sourcing are by no means exclusive to the boy geniuses and biz insiders.

Matters of Trust
Responsible reporting is all about establishing and maintaining the audience’s trust. When you source someone whom you never communicated, you risk that trust. When you engage in conflicted relationships, you violate that trust. BGR and Business Insider are both what I call “synopsis aggregators” that feed of the Google free economy. Aggregators often violate, lifting a term from Star Trek, the Prime Directive: Write what you know to be true in the moment”.

From my book:

If you source another blog or news site you violate the Prime Directive, because you don’t know what’s true. You can only understand by doing your own reporting, which means directly interacting with sources whom you can trust. Synopsis sourcing—the aggregator’s lifeblood—is the most dangerous. It’s a loaded weapon. Blam! Story is wrong. Blam! Another. Eventually the audience’s trust in you is dead…

Anonymous sourcing is a disease sickening online news reporting. There is too much of it! Re-sourcing someone’s anonymous source is akin to willingly spreading pestilence to cause harm. Both practices are a double-standard. Transparency is supposed to be one of new media’s most charming characteristics. There is nothing transparent about anonymous sources—and using them so damn often. Sourcing a blog or news site citing an unnamed source is opaque, defying any concept of an open Internet.

Feeding the Beast
But today, I observe another problem corrupting sourcing practices: Mutually-shared financial benefits from the Google free economy, when one or more sites with conflict relationship shares content with or primarily sources the other. Looks like I’ve got something important to add to the book’s next update.

Blogs or news sites that share something mutually financially beneficial have less incentive to report rather than aggregate. Cross-linking can benefit both, even if there are “nofollow” tags in the URLs for Google indexing. People are the difference. They may read, for example, the BGR synopsis but click through to Business Insider, which also posts some stories from the other site. One story, two clicks, and maybe more.

I do not know what is either’s site editorial policy. Is there clear separation between Church and State—meaning editorial and advertising—or is there some understanding among the writers about potential benefits from content sharing and/or sourcing? The answer is immaterial for this report, because I assert that that the perception of conflict is reason enough for BGR to never run stories sourcing Business Insider, particularly solely. Society of Professional Journalists—and granted BGR and BI qualify as blogs—offers sensible reporting ethic: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts”. Perception is problem enough and raises audience trust issues every editor or writer shouldn’t ignore.

As for broader editorial policies, anyone can see that BGR and Business Insider generate some originally reported content, but that a large quantity is synopsis aggregation that sources someone else. Both properties derive revenue from the Google economy of giving away lots, and lots, and lots of content for free recouped from advertising and search. The Google economy rewards traffic and impressions, not accuracy.

But no site can produce enough original content, because there is too much space and not enough advertising to fill it; hence all the synopsis aggregation and sourcing of someone else’s posts. When blogs or news sites mutually benefit from such practice, which can—and I assert does—discourage original reporting and sourcing, whom do you trust? You tell me.

Photo Credit: Roger H. Goun