Attribution is accuracy

One of the less exciting but even less avoidable parts of my work as a journalist and a citizen of the Web is proper attribution. You can’t count on a tweet, a Facebook update or a blog post accurately identifying whoever first posted the fact, witticism, image or video in question; you have to keep clicking “via” and “source” links until you reach the headwaters of the story and can credit the author by name.

This is both good manners and part of telling the truth. Passing off somebody else’s work as your own is wrong, and passing off somebody else’s work as a third party’s isn’t much better–especially if that third party did a quick copy-and-paste job.

But everybody’s busy, especially in most newsrooms, and it’s easy to link to whoever brought something to your attention and leave it at that. I also often see sites reserve their attribution for a short, vague link that may not even be in the body of a story.

I had a reminder of this risk earlier this week. My review of the car2go service for Discovery featured a number I hadn’t seen before: the $578,000 this car-sharing service paid the District of Columbia to obtain free on-street parking for its Smart Fortwo vehicles.

(This did not require any great reporting. I only thought to inquire about that as I was finishing the post; after an amazingly efficient PR interaction, a program manager with D.C.’s Department of Transportation e-mailed the figure.)

John Hendel, who writes the TBDOnFoot blog for (what’s left of) the local-news site TBD, saw that and added more details about car2go’s deal with DDOT in a post that linked to mine. And then the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis wrote a summary of the situation that credited Hendel for digging up the $578k number. Oops.

Things ended fine–I e-mailed DeBonis about it, he updated the post more prominently than I would have, we’re all good. But now I’m worrying if I myself have forgotten to credit somebody for a good quote or interesting factoid in any recent posts. If that somebody is you, please let me know.