Content Provision in the Digital Age: 21st Century Ethics are the Same as the 20th

As a writer, editor and public relations professional, it’s a compliment when a reporter or blogger uses your words verbatim.  But even if cutting and pasting is good for business in the PR world, it’s just not good ethics.

WritingIt should be no surprise to professional writers that journalistic ethics in the 21st century are the same ethics as those from the 20th. But the pressure of constant 24/7 deadlines in the digital age threatens to make plagiarists of some of us.


I’ve seen a multitude of ethical lapses among reporters and bloggers regarding the use of provided content. When you use someone else’s content verbatim, slap on a new lede (beginning) and give yourself a byline for a job well done, that is called plagiarism. Stealing other people words can get you kicked out of universities or fired from journalistic publications. Plagiarism, which comes from the Greek word to hijack, is still a crime.


When someone else says it better than you can — and the best writers are good for a reason– paraphrase or summarize content, or use the copy with an attribution. If you use statistics in your story, always cite the source. Bonafide, respected newspapers and trusted international news agencies like Associated Press or the Voice of America have not strayed from their 20th century ethical stances: that two independent sources create a fact. Rumor and opinion should not be positioned as fact in any kind of journalistic writing or broadcast.


If you did not go to journalism school, but find yourself writing or blogging for your company website, as many of us do nowadays, here are some basics when writing for any publication at any time:


— Accuracy is all. Nuance is essential. Don’t make claims you cannot substantiate or attribute to a qualified source. Qualify your statements so they can be considered true. True content is trusted; invented content is called fiction. Telling lies about people, of course is libel, and that is a place no writer ever wants to go.


— “Value statements” appropriate in sales literature get edited out of news or feature stories re-written by journalists. Value statements can be issued in quotes, though, if they are true and attributed to a reliable source. Remember that a basic tenet of propaganda is that a little bit of truth is mixed in with the lies.


— Give credit to other writers and photographers when they are due. When in doubt, go to the source and ask permission before publishing someone else’s photos or content. Many people will give permission when asked, but they like to be asked before publication, not apologized to afterward.


— Be fair, even nice when you can be—Your good reputation and the reputation of your company depend on trusted relationships with others. Wise people are protective of their reputations online, and that includes content as well as photos. Little is gained in the long run if you post unflattering or unfair material about other people.


— Know your niche and be consistentTelling one side of the story is public relations; telling  both sides is journalism. The best, most respected professionals in both fields listen to each other, do their homework and correct mistakes when they occur.


— Check your facts. Writing is an insecure business by its very nature. Writers swim out into untested verbal waters. They explore ideas and make connections others either have not seen or not yet dared to make.  So when you say something new or inventive, or something that could be controversial, allow yourself to sleep well that night. Let your copy sit. Come back to it later, with fresh eyes, before posting or publishing. Have a friend or a boss read it over. Even the very best writers need editors to keep things in perspective at times.


— Finally, remember that good ethics in content provision not only helps you win friends and influence people– to quote Dale Carnegie just a little out of context– but accuracy will help you avoid legal hot water. When in doubt, leave it out.

Melinda Zemper is President of Oak Tree Communications in Cincinnati, Ohio
Melinda Zemper is President of Oak Tree Communications in Cincinnati, Ohio

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