When a famous actress writes a really personal piece about having a double mastectomy, is it ethical to do a detailed re-write to boost traffic to your own news website?
This is a tricky post to write because I could easily be accused of doing the thing I’m criticising. For this reason, I haven’t tagged this post with the actress’s name, I’m only mentioning her name when necessary, and I’m doing bad SEO (search engine optimisation) practice with my links – other than the link to the original piece.
That piece is My Medical Choice by Angelina Jolie, in the New York Times. You should go read it. I have no idea if the decision to tell the world was easier or harder than the decision to have the procedure, but I tell you what, that’s a pretty fucking tough year she’s had.
So. Given that millions and millions of people will want to read it – and that she wrote it for a particular news organisation, rather than, say, putting out a media release – how ethical is it for other news organisations to write their own highly-detailed versions so they get a piece of the traffic?
There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s just an ethical question. What makes me uncomfortable is different to what makes other people uncomfortable, and regular readers will know that I probably think too much about this stuff.
Fairfax’s Daily Life writer Natalie Reilly has done a re-write, with a screaming headline that includes all the terms people would be searching for. It’s good SEO practice and therefore it’s good for traffic to dailylife.com.au.
However, it isn’t until halfway through Reilly’s re-write that she tells the reader the info comes from a piece in the New York Times. When you’re doing a re-write, that information should be mentioned – and hyperlinked – in the first or second sentence. No later. You need to make it very clear that you are writing about someone else’s work. These are the rules I stuck to when I was a journalist and they are ones I stick to now. On top of that, there’s so much detail in Reilly’s piece that there’s little reason to read the original. To me, that’s unethical. You might feel differently.
(Oddly, Sarah Berry has also done a re-write for smh.com.au, so they have two versions on their website. Berry’s is better, in terms of clearly and prominently telling readers to “click here to read Angelina Jolie’s piece in full” at the start and end. It also gives information about the procedure in Australia, so it’s not solely a re-write. However, I think it also gives enough information that readers won’t go any further. I’d be interested to see their stats on how many readers did click through to the original, but of course they will never release that info.)
Re-writes are common practice in newsrooms. It’s how you share another organisation’s work with your audience when you don’t have permission to use it. Wire services send them out all the time. I don’t think re-writes are necessarily bad, but you need to be clear that it’s a re-write. You also need to be really obvious in pointing your readers to the original, in a way that makes them want to go to it, and part of that is not telling the whole damn story in your re-write. Otherwise, you’re essentially just passing someone else’s work off as your own.
I don’t want to single Reilly out, because News Ltd sites also have re-writes of this story, but they aren’t bylined. The piece dailytelegraph.com.au was running this afternoon has been replaced by the news.com.au version. It’s worth seeing the story on dailytelegraph.com.au, just so you can see what happens when you don’t pay attention to your images. Just like the Fairfax pieces, News Ltd’s re-write also leaves the reader with little reason to go to the original. Plus they throw a million links and galleries at you to make sure you’re too distracted to leave the website. Clever, I suppose, but very messy.
Now, I’m not so naive that I think online news is just about reporting news for the good of the people. Of course it’s about boosting traffic for advertising purposes. I’m also not so naive to think that a story about Angelina Jolie and her breasts wasn’t going to make news around the world. But given the highly personal story she’s telling, a better approach would be to say “hey, here’s a few lines of it, go read what she wrote, in her own words and not in ours”. Yes, you still get the traffic, but you don’t look like a jerk.