Referencing, attribution and plagiarism

<a href="" target="_new">Image by woodleywonderworks</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY 2.0</a>
Image by woodleywonderworks released via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Treating sources with respect

Producing a piece of original journalism involves uncovering facts that, had it not been for you, would have remained hidden.

Your work will, however, probably include material that was already in the public domain; only your original idea and the final revelation might be new.

Journalists regularly have to refer to material created by others in the course of compiling a report.

Sometimes we get an idea for a follow up piece having seen an item on the TV news, heard something on the radio, spotted an interesting line in a newspaper, or been alerted to an event via social media.

In such cases, the original stimulation for following up a story comes from another source, which means that the story has not been created solely through our own original investigations, contacts, or research.

That doesn’t mean that the follow up piece you plan to write will be any less important; many great stories can be developed by reading what others have covered and finding a unique angle that has previously been missed.

We then embark on creating a new piece of content exploring the angle we want to focus.

That will become a piece of original journalism that will, hopefully, enhance the audience understanding of the issue being covered in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Original, copied, reworked

In another module on this site ‘Strategic forward planning for media organisations’ we looked at some of the sources of news available to media organisations, and underlined how it’s important to create original journalism.

We expanded on that theme in another module ‘Establishing a market differential with original journalism’ where we looked at how journalists can produce more than 10 original stories a week by investigating the issues that are of most concern to their own target audience.

But what should we do when we are following up stories created by others? What is the correct level of attribution? And how much of the original content should we use when mentioning the article to which we are referring?

These were some of the questions mailed to this site by a specialist writer asking advice on the best way to reference the work of others.

His skill is spotting angles in news stories and then producing detailed in-depth reports.

But he was unsure how to do so in a way that respects the original content, offers proper attribution, and avoids any suggestion of plagiarism.

Attribution for news sources

My own rule would be to use as little third-party material as possible.

Perhaps just refer to the headline and then sum up the gist of the article in one sentence, offering attribution and links where appropriate.

I would never copy any of the body text over to my own report unless I was offering a direct quote about what had been said.

Let’s look at how to follow up an angle to a story.

Say, for example, that there has been a fire at a clothing factory in which 350 people died.

The local newspaper claims the factory was a so-called ‘sweat shop’.

The reporter who wrote the piece had quotes from surviving workers that suggested there were inadequate employee safety regulations in force.

The newspaper reported eyewitness accounts that claimed that the factory floor was overcrowded, that emergency exits had been blocked with boxes of stock, and that the room was locked from the outside.

They claimed there was no health and safety training, and that many of the workers were non-registered and didn’t belong to trade unions.

There was no comment from the factory owners.

Let’s imagine you are an industrial correspondent who specialises in workplace safety and employer/employee relations. You read the line about safety and decide you would like to follow up the story.

You might feel compelled to write a headline ‘How safe is the clothing industry?’ in which you explore the issue and, in your piece, make reference to the original story that prompted you to investigate.

You might decide to write something like this:

“The Smallville Examiner’s report into the fire in a clothing factory that resulted in 350 deaths claimed that overcrowding and blocked emergency exits were part responsible for the high death toll.”

But is that safe?

The Smallville Examiner had included the name of the factory. They claimed to have spoken to the owner who, they reported, had said “no comment” when asked about safety conditions.

You haven’t spoken to the owner. So can you report the allegations and the response? Well of course you can, but is it safe to do so? Probably not.

The owner might be taking legal action against The Smallville Examiner. He or she might take legal action against you, too.

So, unless you have the time and resources to interview the owner, you had probably better keep it simple. Perhaps you would write something like this:

“Following the fire at a local clothing factory, which claimed the lives of 350 workers and was first reported in The Smallville Examiner (link to the report), we look at health and safety provision in the clothing industry and ask whether safety measures are tight enough.”

Here you have attributed the information to the source. You have briefly summarised what was reported, and you have provided a link. That’s probably all you should do at this point in terms of reference and attribution.

Now you can proceed with your piece.

In the case above you are simply reporting information which is already in the pubic domain.

You must not copy and paste another news organisation’s content, and you must not copy the text and then try to rework or paraphrase it in an attempt to make it look like your own.

You must respect the original source of the information and give full attribution.

Attribution to specific content

If you wanted to use a specific line from a quote in a piece on The Smallville Examiner you would have to go one step further.

If human rights activist and photojournalist, Floyd Boyd, speaking to The Smallville Examiner, was reported as saying that “while sifting through the charred remains of the factory I came across boxes of labels from well-known Western clothing outlets which showed they were benefitting from illegal working conditions”, you would need to do the following.

It would probably not be wise to write:

“The Smallville Examiner also carried an interview with a photojournalist who claimed to have seen ‘boxes of labels from well-known Western clothing outlets’ among the ‘charred remains’ of the factory.”

First of all it might not be true, secondly, those being accused might be preparing a fairly robust legal defence of the accusations.

What you could do is to try to contact Floyd Boyd to see whether he would confirm what he had said to The Smallville Examiner and expand on the point. He might even show you some of the pictures he took.

Once you have made contact, you could build on that interview and, gradually, make the story your own to the point that you could eventually drop any quotes from The Smallville Examiner and provide limited attribution, perhaps in the form of “in an issue first reported by The Smallville Examiner”.

Curation of content

Perhaps you want to do a form of ‘media review’ about an issue where you scour the web for information about a development.

You would need to make it clear at the beginning of your piece that it was a trawl of the most current references. So you would need to say something like:

  • “Al Jazeera reports the story as [their headline goes here] in which they claim that [here you could paraphrase their main point and provide a link].”
  • “Taking another view, The BBC claims that [their headline goes here] and they expand on the point to say [here you paraphrase the BBC line]” … and so on.

Tools for monitoring plagiarism

Plagiarism is rife. Many journalists just copy and paste. In some countries they genuinely seem to believe that copyright means they have a right to copy.

There are tools – many of them free – which help content producers check on plagiarism. Just search the web for the term ‘free plagiarism checker’ to see what’s available.

Some of these tools can actually tell how much of a piece of text has been reworked from the original and show percentage scores.

Some senior editors and sub editors working for major news sites actually copy and paste chunks of suspicious text into plagiarism checkers to make sure that the content they are being asked to approve is legitimate.

Social media

Of course social media turns all this on its head. Many rules are broken because:

  1. often, those using social media are not journalists and don’t live by the rules, and
  2. the big news organisations are unlikely to chase after a blogger or someone posting on Facebook or Twitter because it’s probably not worth it.

But that means that those who attribute content to “being discussed on social media” have the extra burden of checking where the original source material came from, and how far down the information food chain attribution applies.


So, in conclusion, it’s far better to simply a) refer to sources, b) use extremely limited material in that reference, c) provide a link to the original material, and d) use as many qualifying words as you can without it looking silly – such as ‘according to’, ‘claims that’, ‘is reporting that’ etc.

Always try to make the story your own by finding your own sources revealing unknown facts – or interview those referred to in the original piece in order to find new angles on which to build your piece.

Most media organisations have the two independent sources rule. Even then, they will provide attribution to be on the safe side.

Does and don’ts

  • Always check with your own senior editors and legal team to ensure you understand what your media organisation’s policy of attribution and referencing is.
  • Never copy and paste the work of others.
  • Always provide attribution.
  • Never reversion or rework content to try to pass it off as your own.
  • Always double-check facts, sources, quotes, places, times, dates etc
  • Never accept what is written by others as fact.
  • Always be honest about where you have found information.

This training module was written following an approach from a user of Media Helping Media for guidance on the issues covered. Please don’t apply any of the suggestions without first consulting your news organisation’s senior editorial staff.

Related training modules

Establishing a market differential with original journalism

Strategic forward planning for media organisations

David Brewer
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is the founder and editor of Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast, and online. He was the managing editor of BBC News Online when the site launched, the managing editor of International EMEA setting out the editorial proposition, hiring staff and overseeing the launch, the managing editor for the launch of CNN Arabic in Dubai, and a launch consultant for Al Jazeera English in Qatar. He has spent many years delivering journalism training worldwide, mainly in transition and post-conflict countries. He is currently mentoring journalists and editors of refugee and exiled media and helping train journalists in countries where the media is still developing.