City Desk

Radley Balko Comments on CNN’s Unattributed Use of His Reporting

Late last month, WaPo's Ian Shapira accused Gawker of ripping off his story about a pricey consultant: "Gawker's version of my story, headlined " 'Generational Consultant' Holds America's Fakest Job," begins by telling its readers to "Meet Anne Loehr" — with a link to my story but no direct mention of The Post."

The fallout that ensued was tremendous. A few web-only writers went after Gawker, but even more argued that at least Gawker gave credit, whereas newspapers, television stations, and other old media frequently don't when they re-report a story.

Well, CNN recently did to criminal justice reporter Radley Balko, who lives in Northern Virginia, what Gawker supposedly did to Shapira, except it failed to give any credit where much credit was due.

As Techdirt wrote early this morning, Balko (who I worked with at Reason) has spent several years reporting on Steven Hayne, the Mississippi medical examiner whose shoddy work has led to the incarceration of several known innocents. Over the last three years, Balko has cultivated sources, reads hundreds–if not thousands–of pages of documentation incriminating Hayne, and, as a result, has broken every single piece of major news about the medical examiner.

But you wouldn't know any of that if all you had for reference was the AC360 special about Hayne, which piggy-backs almost exclusively on Balko's reporting without every hat-tipping or acknowledging his work. (Techdirt reported that "sources quoted by CNN told Balko that CNN claims it found them via his articles.")

In a post at his site The Agitator, Balko writes

I guess the important thing here is that CNN is giving the Steven Hayne story national attention.

That’s great.

And I guess I shouldn’t dwell too much on the fact that CNN piggybacked on my three years of reporting without giving me even the slightest acknowledgment. Journalists who have been in the game far longer than I tell me this kind of thing happens all the time. Bigger outlets don’t really feel obligated to credit smaller ones for breaking stories.

Most bloggers and reporters, old media and new, have made the same point: Piggy-backing happens a lot, it's how news dissemination works, and it shouldn't be looked down on if it's done right. But few people, especially in old media, are willing to concede that when a story moves upward, from web to print, or from small outlet to national outlet, the big dogs don't feel the need to reciprocate credit.

This is especially egregious when a story blows up in the hands of a larger outlet, because there's an opportunity to easily boost a smaller paper's profile with a hat-tip. The Wall Street Journal could (and should) have done this in August of last year, when it piggybacked on months of reporting by the Brownsville Herald on a story about Mexican-Americans being denied citizenship because they were delivered by midwives instead of in obstetric wards.

In an email, Balko elaborated on CNN's failure to credit his reporting:

"With my story, it wasn't just CNN. The Gannet-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger has run with two of my big scoops about Dr. Hayne in just the last six months. Neither acknowleded I broke the original story. Here you have a paper with a fairly large staff and budget continually getting scooped on a story that's beeing going on in its own backyard for 20 years by a journalist with a small magazine who lives 600 miles away. Seems to me that's a good indication that the traditional media's problems go well beyond having their content excerpted by blogs and websites."

UPDATE: A savvy reader points out that CNN closed the comments on the ANC360 Hayne article immediately after this post pinged back in the comments section:

ANC_360

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  • Javad

    Wow..almost immediately after this article got a trackback on the AC360 blog, the comments were closed by CNN... hmm

    http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/08/21/pathologists-work-raises-questions/

  • http://washingtoncitypaper.com Mike Riggs

    Thanks for the heads up, Javad.

  • Dave

    But didn't CNN do it's own reporting on this story - albeit lame, piggybacking reporting - by interviewing Balko's sources? Isn't that different than the Shapira case, in which Gawker just linked to his story and didn't do any of its own reporting?

  • http://washcp.com Mike Riggs

    I think this comes down to giving credit where credit is due, Dave. Regardless of whether Gawker added additional reporting or not--and I think it's important to note that additional reporting isn't always necessary; sometimes opinion and analysis are worth just as much--WaPo and Shapira were rewarded for their diligence with page views (which, in some parallel universe, equals $$$).

    In this case, Balko reported for years, CNN swooped in, re-reported through all his sources, and made no mention of Balko's work in unearthing these people and their stories.

  • Peter

    why is there so much journalism navel-gazing on this blog? I can understand the Wemple posts, as that seems to be his beat, but it bleeds into almost everyone's writing

    http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=168422

  • elizabeth

    Hey everyone, although I deeply appreciate the work Mr Balco has done on the story, the point is: it needs to see the national light of day. Now. with all the writers credit issues...the story is again delayed by CNN...so congrats I guess Balco and fans. The point should be to air the story again and again if necessary to get to the truth and stop injustice. I dearly hope that your journalistic ethics extend further. Unless someone takes the high road and says "run it" it will remain buried and many will suffer.

  • Dave

    @Riggs

    I guess I see your point. By Gawker linking to the Shapira story, they were giving the WaPo a tacit hat tip. But CNN didn't even link to Balko's work.

    Still, CNN did do some legwork on this story whereas Gawker did none. I disagree with your point that opinion and analysis are sometimes more valuable than reporting. How so?

  • Ben

    But Dave, what actual substance did CNN's re-interviewing of Balko's sources add to the story. Nothing, from what I can see. They did not produce a scintilla of information that Balko had not already reported on. So, to me it looks like they re-interviewed the sources simply so they could say it was original work and not have to credit him.

    I guess what I'm saying is that if I submitted a senior thesis explaining how gravity worked, it would still not be original work, even if I redid all of the experiments myself.

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