The media has lots of unwritten rules. Many of them are followed more closely than the written rules. After the Times ripped off a year-old Wall Street Journal story with no credit last week, we realized the need for a complete explanation of the powerful rules governing a time-honored and fundamental practice: Stealing stories. Every media outlet in the world does it—after all, there's much more space to fill every day than there are exclusives. Done the right way, it's perfectly acceptable; done the wrong way, it can be the start of an undercover war. After the jump, we explain everything you need to know to be an honorable, thieving hack. Memorize it:
The Golden Rule
Media outlets can only steal outright from other media outlets that are not their direct competitors, and do not fall in their same class. First-class outlets: National TV news networks (including the big three on cable), the top five national newspapers, top-level weekly news magazines, and a select few websites like Drudge. Second-class outlets: Niche TV networks, local TV news affiliates, smaller metro papers, smaller but still well-respected news magazines, well-known internet news operations that don't fall in the top handful. Third-class outlets: Trade magazines, niche magazines, smaller local papers, niche internet news sites. Fourth-class outlets: Others.
When stealing from one's own class, it must be acknowledged that you are doing so, and that you have been scooped.
The Times' mistake was stealing from the WSJ, another major paper in its same class. Had they stolen their story from, say, a trade magazine, it would have been perfectly acceptable. Likewise, a trade magazine can steal from the Times, and a tacit acknowledgment or small link is fine. If a trade magazine were to steal from a directly competing trade magazine, it would be a shameful theft.
Everyone understands these rules. Big papers, because of their sheer resources, provide most of our news, period. Everybody else follows their lead when dealing with major news. Lower-level outlets are expected to give their own take on the news of the day. Papers like the Times set the agenda; everybody else feeds off of it. This is fine. A local paper can put a local angle on a story that originated in a national newspaper; a trade magazine can put an industry-specific angle on the same story. Neither need feel guilty. If the Times picks up a story from a small paper, they will likely put so much re-reporting into it that their version is far deeper than the original. To the extent that you steal original material from direct scoops, though, you must give acknowledgment to the original scooper.
Television news operations are less likely to give credit to print outlets that break stories; of course, TV news produces visual packages for their stories, which they can argue constitute a completely new story. Again, the most stringent need for acknowledgment comes with direct competitors. If one news network steals an original story from another, it must explicitly credit it. Inter-platform theft is a looser matter.
Examples Of How To Steal Properly
Direct competitor: "In a story first reported by the LA Times, scientists have confirmed that Scott McClellan is an android."
Other: "Scott McClellan is an android, scientists confirmed today."
Direct competitor: "Is your kid drinking Lysol to get 'high?' It's a phenomenon that's been reported by Time and others, but...."
Others: "Your child may be drinking Lysol right this minute. To get high!"
Direct competitor: "Hipsters eat magic fruit, then eat each other. [Curbed]"
Others: "Crazy Williamsburg hipsters are berry-munching madmen—with a taste for flesh!"
Direct competitor: "CBS News has reported that Hillary Clinton is dropping out and joining a nunnery."
Others: "Rumors have emerged that Hillary Clinton may be dropping out to join a nunnery."
See how simple?
Those who foolishly flout this rule by stealing the work of other reporters in their same class with no credit can expect to be ostracized at media parties; have vicious gossip about them leaked to Gawker; and, one day down the road, to be the subject of a gratuitous backhanded smear in the outlet that they stole from (this goes double if you're dealing with tabloids).
Reporters are small people, and we never forget an insult. Play smart.
[pic via Corbis]