Poynter Institute allowing the attribution style that led to Jim Romenesko’s resignation

Things have come full circle at the Poynter Institute in the past 10 years.

Jim Romenesko ran a popular journalism blog for the Poynter Institute journalism school until 2011. Romenesko’s blog highlighted stories relating to the field of journalism. But eventually assistant editor Erika Fry of Columbia Journalism Review noticed that Romenesko was using verbatim quotations in his summary blurbs without using quotation marks.

When the Poynter Institute learned of the situation from Fry and reviewed Romenesko’s work, the decision was made to assign an editor to Romenesko and underline Poynter’s policy that verbatim quotations require quotation marks.

Romenesko ended up resigning from the Poynter Institute in 2011 to start his own blog.

On July 2, 2020, Zebra Fact Check found a similar failure of attribution in the “Factually” newsletter Poynter publishes jointly with the American Press Institute.

We found a dubious claim in the July 2, 2020 edition of the newsletter (more on that from Zebra Fact Check next week). When we started reviewing the source material we simply happened to notice similar wording.

“Factually” used a 20-word string of words identical to a string used in the Washington Post.

“Factually” (bold emphasis added):

. . . technology

  • Facebook this week said it had banned hundreds of accounts and groups associated with the far-right “boogaloo” movement whose followers have been linked to violence that disrupted mostly peaceful protests around the United States.
    • The Washington Post said the action “was a shift in [Facebook’s] strategy from just removing offending posts as they popped up.”

The source link for the words emphasized in bold occurs in the indented section below the paragraph containing the verbatim quotation.

Zebra Fact Check reached out to the duo responsible for the newsletter, Susan Benkelman and Harrison Mantas, encouraging a clear approach to attribution and noting that the existing example left an opening for the charge of plagiarism.

Benkelman responded to defend the attribution.

“I think it’s clear that this item came from The Washington Post, given the attribution and the link in the sub-bullet,” Benkelman said.

We disagree with Benkelman.

Commonsense Interpretation

In a list of aggregated news items, readers expect a given paragraph to summarize or paraphrase some part of the linked material. The quotation of the Washington Post that Benkelman failed to bracket with quotation marks occurs in a paragraph linking to Facebook.

The reader would naturally expect that paragraph to reflect content from Facebook, not from the Washington Post.

Quotation, Paraphrase, Summary?

As Managing Editor Julie Moos wrote when addressing the issue with Romenesko, readers expect journalists to bracket verbatim quotations with quotation marks.

Where quotation marks do not occur, readers expect one of three things:

  • Summary, with attribution
  • Paraphrase, with attribution
  • Original content

Benkelman satisfied none of those expectations with her literary construction. Benkelman’s method runs afoul of the Poynter policy Moos described in 2011.

“Our practice,” Moos wrote, “is to enclose verbatim language in quotation marks, and to set off longer excerpts in blockquotes.”

Whither Poynter?

Given the Poynter Institute’s detailed and labor-intensive response to the allegations involving Romenesko in 2011, we expected Poynter to have some interest in the possibility that the methods Poynter decried in 2011 had returned in 2020.

So far, Poynter has taken no steps we can see to address Benkelman’s faulty attribution. Nor has Poynter responded to requests for on-the-record comments about to Benkelman’s attribution method.

We do not count Benkelman as a representative of Poynter. She works for the American Press Institute.

Zebra Fact Check emailed Poynter Institute’s ethicist Kelly McBride to ask whether Benkelman’s defense of her attribution was plausible.

We emailed the Poynter Institute via Tina Dyakon, noting the parallel to the Romenesko situation and reminding Poynter of its self-stated ethical commitment to transparency.

Finally, we emailed present-day managing editor Ren LaForme.

We still have no comment or explanation from the Poynter Institute.

By taking the path of inaction, Poynter gives its implicit endorsement to a willy-nilly style of attribution that it rejected less than 10 years ago.

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