By Gregg McLachlan

Failure to attribute. It’s a source of frustration in our industry.

Just recently, I had a fellow editor point out a feature produced by a journalist at another daily newspaper. The story contained passages and quotes that were verbatim from a press release. The bylined work contained no attribution. To the reader’s eye, it was a feature written and reported by a journalist. To an editor’s eye, it was a case of a journalist being unethical and attempting to fool readers that the work was written by him/her.

Was it caught by anyone? Probably not. Chances are the reporter slipped one past the editor. And readers got hoodwinked . . . although they’ll never know it.

The fact that reporters are continuing to do this today is a worry. How many times does the issue have to make national headlines before journalists finally get the message about credibility?

As an editor, I still see a failure to attribute on occasion. Quotes from press releases are used, but never attributed to the press release. Quotes and content from wire stories are used verbatim, but not attributed. It’s a serious issue.

In Canada in 2004, at least two reporters – one left his position, another was terminated – for failing to attribute parts of their work to other sources.

A major metro daily in the U.S. reported that an extensive review of a columnist’s work found he sometimes used quotes from other news outlets without giving proper credit.

After going over more than 600 of the writer’s columns, the paper said the writer had used quotes from newspapers, TV programs or other publications without showing that he got the material elsewhere.

The most common issues I see relate to press releases and wire service stories. They represent some of the easiest traps for journalists. During a hectic day, that helpful quote in a press release or wire story can mean one less phone call. The problem comes when quotes or material are just plopped, unsourced, into a story. The editors will be none the wiser, some reporters will think.

Wrong. Editors do notice. And reporters will be quickly called on it.

The Orlando Sentinel’s policy on attribution “forbids lifting verbatim paragraphs from a wire service story without attribution or a shirttail pointing out that wire services were used in compiling the report.”

The policy also dictates that in the interest of accuracy and credibility, quotes of individuals taken from intermediate sources (other handouts, press releases, other stories) should be sourced.

The policy is much the same at the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. Its policy states: “Material from other sources, such as press releases, literary works or other newspapers, must be clearly attributed in the body of the story. When we modify wire service material, we should change the byline only when we make significant changes – and even then we must credit the wire service in the story at the end.”

It’s not a game of trying to fool readers or slipping one past editors. It’s about being credible.