If the Internet is the Wild West of our times, with boom towns sprouting up too fast for the law to keep up, then perhaps "repurposing" is the rustling of our times, where original material is stolen from its home pasture and brazenly rebranded under the name of another Internet site.

Of course, repurposing—when practiced correctly—is not theft. It has a legitimate aim: to take news stories done by traditional news organizations and modify them to fit other formats, such as the Internet. Yahoo! News does this all the time—and well. Yahoo! News always credits the original reporters and often links back to the original source material. "Yahoo for Yahoo!," I say. The problem with repurposing is that it is open to interpretation by various outlaws roaming the World Wild West, who think it’s just fine to grab original material and post it as their own.

Where I come from, this is known as plagiarism. My journalism students at the University of Southern California (USC) think so, too, especially after they got burned.

This past summer, I worked with 11 talented graduate students—10 from USC and one from Harvard—on a reporting project called News21, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program involved journalism schools at USC, the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern and Columbia, as well as the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy at Harvard. Each school immersed the students in a single subject for a semester-long seminar and then turned them loose to report on that subject during a 10-week paid summer fellowship. The goal: to report original, important stories that would be published or broadcast on professional news media outlets, including television, radio, newspapers and the Internet.

In other words, young reporters were given several months to learn a subject in depth, to develop sources and story ideas, and then were provided with the time and money to tell those stories to a large audience. Working reporters should be so lucky.

Reporting the Story

At each school, students explored different topics, but each one fell under the umbrella heading of "National Security in a Post 9-11 World." At USC we chose RELATED WEB LINK
Read News21’s Immigration Coverage
– newsinitiative.org
to focus on immigration, which has become one of the bigger stories of the year. While happy to be concentrating on such a timely topic, we realized that the competition in finding original stories to report would be fierce. I cautioned the fellows to keep their work confidential.

One story, in particular, seemed to have a potential for being scooped. During the seminar portion of our program, graduate student Shawna Thomas found a story in Naco, Arizona about a group of teenagers living near the border who had joined an Explorer Scout program that trained them to be junior Border Patrol agents. She and two other students, Millicent Jefferson and Karl-Erik Stromsta, traveled to Naco to interview the students, their parents, and the Border Patrol. The parents were understandably wary and would not let their teenagers appear on camera. But our intrepid reporters still managed to cobble together a story for their class project. Later, they sent a copy of the story to the families they’d interviewed in Naco, which established with them a new level of respect and trust.

As the program moved into the summer workshop phase, the students agreed that the Naco story was worth pursuing. But we expanded it to look at the lives of teenagers who live in the "mirror" communities of Naco, Arizona and Naco, Mexico and the ways in which that same border fence affects their lives. This time, students David Eisenberg and Melanie Roe joined the other three reporters for the trip to the border, since the new team of five would be creating stories for television, print and the Internet. This time, because of the groundwork laid during the first trip, the teenage Border Patrol scouts were willing to talk on camera.

The result: a print story by Karl-Erik Stromsta that appeared in the L.A. Weekly newspaper in August and a broadcast story by the whole team of five destined for ABC’s "Good Morning America." A longer broadcast version RELATED WEB LINK
News21 Web site
– newsinitiative.org
appears on the News21 Web site, with links to the L.A. Weekly story.

The students were understandably proud of the work they’d done on this story. Not only had they managed to develop an excellent news report during a period of many weeks on a very competitive beat, but also they had learned the rush of digging up original material and sharing it with the world. As Shawna Thomas wrote in her reporting blog: "This reporting fellowship puts us in an enviable situation where we don’t necessarily have to make the story we found fit into some preconceived notion of what the story was going to be. Our story actually gets to grow from the extensive reporting and interviewing that was done on the border. This is in contrast to the current atmosphere of the professional news business, which sometimes breeds writing the story before reporting on it. Lucky us; we get to write the story after the reporting."

The Story Gets ‘Repurposed’

There is a point to this rather lengthy exposition: It helps explain the outrage felt by the News21 reporters when they heard that their story had suddenly shown up under the headline "Border Patrol Trains Teens for Action" on an Internet site named Buzzle.com. But credit was not given to them; instead, the story was credited to the "reporting staff" of the site.

The students were tipped to this, oddly enough, by the Border Patrol agent interviewed for their story and who had already seen the piece in the L.A. Weekly. "Isn’t this your story?" he asked.

Well, yes, it was.

Shawna Thomas sent an angry e-mail to the editors of the Web site, saying "The author of the article liberally takes quotes from an L.A. Weekly article from an August issue and does not back it up with his own research. I know this because I was part of the team that did the reporting on the original article …. I’m not completely sure if this is a normal practice on this site, but I would say it’s damn close to plagiarism."

What especially riled the students was the photograph that accompanied the article on Buzzle.com. It showed young trainees aiming guns at targets. Our team took many photos, including the Explorer Scouts practicing their handcuffing technique, but none of those photos showed anyone handling a gun. Wrote Shawna: "It is not one of the pictures we took, and it is misleading and shoddy journalism to use photographs that are not directly related to the article."

The author of the L.A. Weekly story, Karl-Erik Stromsta, also wrote a protest to the site and, in a separate e-mail to me, said "If this is the new journalism, I want nothing to do with it."

An editor from Buzzle.com, Michael Wist, wrote back, apologizing to "the team that worked on the original piece. Although we stand by our author and assert that no plagiarism took place, the fact that there was even a question indicates that we failed in properly demonstrating our sources." The site was "updated" to include references to the original article and the author and misleading photo were removed. The editor seemed to take our concerns seriously, saying "given our role as a secondary content source, we simply could not function if we made a practice of plagiarism."

Now there’s an interesting description—a secondary content source, to go along with the new terminology of "repurposing." These are the slippery new terms being used in our slippery times. How was this not plagiarism, we wondered? And if someone we knew hadn’t happened onto this site, how would we ever have known about it? How would we know that we’d been repurposed into oblivion? The answer is we would not have known unless we’d somehow stumbled across it. What this made us wonder is how often this happens. Perhaps someone reading this article now is thinking, "Hey, change a word here or there—and we can put this on our blog."

What’s scary is that they would probably get away with it. Back in the Wild West, if the marshal was out of town, the community just gathered up some neighbors and went after those rustlers themselves. Maybe what we need is an E-Posse.

Judy Muller is an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. She worked as a correspondent for ABC News and CBS News and is the author of "Now This: Radio, Television … and the Real World," Putnam, 2000.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment