After The New York Times published its extensive report on the history of Haiti’s impoverishment at the hands of its overthrown colonial overlords, a robust debate broke out between academic and journalistic Twitter about inadequate citation and sourcing. Journalism must do better.
The gist of it: The Times did include a narrative bibliography in the project, which is unusual. But some academics — including Harvard’s Mary Lewis — said they had helped reporters but were neither quoted nor credited. This thread by Pittsburgh Prof. Keisha Blain brings together other threads; read them all. Many said The Times was derelict in not quoting and citing current research but also in ignoring the seminal work of Eric Williams in his 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery — columbusing in, of all subjects, Haiti. Joseph Rezek, a BU professor, said the real problem was that The Times acted as if it had discovered something new when much research on the topic came before:
The hook for the article, that the NYT uncovered this about Haiti, is false; that is why people are mad. The narrative in the piece, about the debt, is good. The narrative of discovery is bad. Academics are not asking journalists to tell bad stories, just ones that are true.— Joseph Rezek (@RezekJoe) May 22, 2022
After three days, The Times reported on the citation controversy but some said it still didn’t give credit where it is due. Some journalists — notably Adam Davidson — pleaded for citational slack in telling stories for general audiences, sparking more controversy. I entered in more than once to argue that journalists must practice better discipline of citation, sourcing, and transparency: showing our work.
There are so many lessons here for journalists and journalism students that I think it is important to try to catalog them, to examine the journalistic presumptions and problems at work, and to propose standards.
Don’t blame your tools. First, let me call bullshit on the usual excuses that journalists do not have the space, time, or appropriate CMS frippery to cite sources. We now have the internet, with unlimited space and time. And we have the best possible tool for citation — the link. If any news organization cared, it would take next to no effort to also update tools to accommodate footnotes, endnotes, or notes that are revealed at a user’s option; to compile bibliographies of sources; and to create open repositories for source material. What is standing in the way of responsible citation is not tools but ethical will.
Journalists must always cite their sources. I don’t just mean attributing quotes. Let’s be honest that too often, quotes in stories are a form of extraction: I (the reporter) got you (the expert) to fill in our (the news organization’s) preconceived narrative. Anyone who has ever been interviewed knows the experience of seeing a long conversation reduced to one out-of-context line included to exploit the expert’s reputation and to make the reporter’s point, not the speaker’s.
What’s more troubling in the case of the Haiti story is what Yasmin Nair calls soft plagiarism: not a direct quote lifted but instead the coopting of ideas, background, context, perspective, and most of all an academic’s research and expertise.
I have sometimes spent an hour or two on the phone with a reporter explaining concepts, context, or history: educating them, with nothing to show for it. Far worse is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s tale of being used and discarded by a PBS series. There are a million such tales.
So, journalists, in your story or in a supplemental bibliography — try it — find a way to cite your sources, all those who, through interviews or literature, gave you the gift of education. To do anything less is intellectual and reportorial theft.
Screw the scoop. The Haiti episode exposes a grave journalistic weakness: the addiction to the scoop, to the idea that everything we report must be new, thus news. That is presumed to be one reason The Times’ Haiti story did not acknowledge much prior research. Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted an explanation: “Simply pitching the story as ‘this happened but many people don’t know about it[’] would likely have meant the piece didn’t get done & certainly that it wouldn’t have gotten all the resources.” She is, as ever, correct. But that indicates something seriously wrong with news organizations’ priorities. Shouldn’t serving what “many people don’t know” be more important than bragging about being the first to know it?
Look, too, at how journalists treat each other, not just academics. Here, NBC reporter Mike Hixenbaugh laments that neither The Times nor The Washington Post credited local Texas reporters with the reporting that led to the devastating report on Southern Baptist evangelical sex abuse.
There is no shame in acknowledging that others came before and in giving them — academics or journalists — recognition for their contributions. The shame is in not doing so.
The story corrupts. The story is not everything. The story is merely one form, one tool to inform the public. Failing to credit sources and experts because doing so would get in the way of the flow of one’s persuasive narrative is no excuse. I have long warned of the seduction of the story, as it grants too much power to the storyteller over the story’s subject. Keeping a narrative going while imparting information and crediting sources is simply our job.
It’s the business model, stupid. So much of this current kerfuffle revolves around the media economy requiring that news organizations to be destinations, to sell subscriptions, or (less and less) to sell attention to advertisers. As Jordan Taylor put it:
So let's not pretend that this is about how clear your writing is, and let's not pretend that hyperlinks or endnotes will deter readers. That's preposterous.
It's about optimizing your words for an attention economy.
In the end, this is not about ethics or credibility but about the fight we’ve been having since the internet entered newsrooms: Journalists and publishers don’t want to link out; they don’t want to give credit; they want to convince themselves and the people they still consider an audience that they are selling a unique, exclusive, valuable commodity called content.
Wrong. Journalism is a service. When we credit our sources and show our work, we enhance our credibility and value. When we exploit and extract the work of academics — particularly academics of color — we extend inequity and injustice. When we value our own journalistic egos over the reputations of our sources and the education of the public, we do harm.
So stop. Find every way you can to cite and credit the sources who make your stories — your articles, your reporting, your informational service — possible. If you do not, you are thieves.
Another thing. I hate it when journalists say academics cannot write well. Yes, it is easy to find academic papers intended for small audiences inside a discipline that use baffling jargon. This writing is not intended for a broad audience. But behind me I have bookshelves filled with wonderfully written books by academics filled with not only engaging narrative but also responsible citation of rich sets of sources. So let’s cut out our intramural sniping about who’s a better writer.
To the contrary, it is vital — urgent — that we bring academics and journalists closer together so that news organizations are exposed to, use, and cite academic research relevant to their reporting. This is one of the reasons why I started an Initiative in Internet Studies at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School — in full disclosure, funded by Google — to highlight research on internet impact for journalists and policymakers. (The Initiative is also bringing researchers together to discuss their agendas and I’m working to develop an educational program; my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I just completed teaching a course in (re)Designing the Internet).
Diara J. Townes, who has worked with First Draft and the Aspen Institute and is a graduate of our school, is leading the effort to find, highlight, summarize, and share relevant research on internet impact. Here is the Twitter account where she is sharing research — and please send her more. Here is her Medium site and here you can sign up for her newsletter.
We in journalism mustn’t build walls to exclude academics by ignoring their prior research, by extracting their work without credit, and by mocking their writing (there is plenty to mock in news writing, folks). Instead, in a time when debate is devoid of fact and data, we must come closer together.
Just as I hit “publish” on this post, a colleague sent me a very good piece by Jonathan Katz, a “Haiti-head” — alongside his wife, Claire Payton, who holds a Ph.D. in Haitian history. Katz examines what is new in The Times project. He concludes:
My journalism-school superego says that a more honest thing for them to do would have been to package the story as what it was — a significant but incremental advance in the understanding of a historical event that scholars and Haitians know about and that much of the rest of the world does not.
But would a single front-page story with a headline like France Stole Over $500 Million from Haiti In 19th Century, Times Analysis Shows — or maybe In an Impoverished County, a Legacy of Theft — have gotten the magnitude of attention that this reporting has so far? Probably not.
Attention from The Times’ editors? I agree; probably not. But attention from the audience? That’s up to The Times’ editors. Nothing would have stopped The Times from doing just what Katz does here, saying: Here’s a story you probably don’t know; let us tell it to you and then let us tell you some new facts we uncovered in our research. Journalism is never the first-draft of history; that is our worst and most inexcusable hubris. Journalism is always another chapter in history.