The ethics of re-writing someone’s personal story

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.

11 responses to “The ethics of re-writing someone’s personal story

  1. Re-write…plagiarism… Seems a fine line some days.

    • Indeed. I really do think re-writes have a place, as long as the focus is on pointing the reader to the original. And keeping the re-write short, so there IS a reason to go to the original.

  2. It’s totally unethical, but certainly not uncommon.

    When I was starting out and had one of my first jobs writing journalism pieces (which were admittedly fluffy celeb-type stuff) I was instructed to re-write existing articles to the extent that nobody could ‘prove’ they were copied from the original, SEO them and hit publish. We would have got chewed out by the higher-ups for adding a link to the source (seeing as it might send people away from the site). The only time we added source links was when the source was one of the company’s other websites! (I’m cringing pretty bad right now – yes, I’ve done things I’m not proud of in my youth to pay the bills, amazing what a jobs crisis can do to personal integrity!)

    I think the only thing that would stop this happening is a few major publications getting burned for plagiarism. But then, it’s tough to prove. As the people doing it know very well.

    • Don’t worry, I’ve done all those things as well. When I brought up the problems with the practice, I was shat on. Little wonder my career as a journalist wasn’t very successful. (I also have a big problem working for dickheads – I can’t even pretend to respect them – which is the real reason I never got far. Because my word, I worked for A LOT of dickheads.)

      A news organisation isn’t going to make a big deal about it because that means they won’t be able to do it either. I’d just like to see journalists stop and think about their work practices, rather than just assuming that they’re doin’ it right.

      • Yeah good point. I’ll bet there were lots of others that thought the same as you, but standing up to the dickheads generally isn’t common (because hey, they’re bullies – and rocking the boat often has consequences). Only the majority of journos working with integrity in this area will get things to change overall.

        (As an aside … it’s like the industry magically attracts dickheads somehow, isn’t it! Once you get out it’s so wonderful to remember that the ratio of nice, normal people to knobs out in the real world is actually pretty good).

        • Oh my god yes! Non-journo friends were always amazed/shocked by what’s considered normal in a newsroom. Editors calling people “fucking idiots” and rolling their eyes when you speak, and yelling at people in front of everyone. Then you get into a normal workplace and people are professional.

          I hate the comment that people who leave the industry do so because “they can’t hack it”. Such bullshit. Lots of people – myself included and by the sounds of it, you as well – leave because they realise they don’t need to put up with abuse just to earn a living.

          • Abuse and unprincipled bullshit. Harassing bereaved people, downplaying stuff cause of advertiser dollars, treating horrible violent tragedy as “a wonderful opportunity to gather more web hits” (actual quote) … blergh. I think lots of people leave so they can sleep better at night too. Unfortunately that just ups the dickhead ratio 😉 Anyway, /rant. It’s not all bad but the stuff that is leaves a lasting impression.

            • Yes to all of those things. Some parts of the job are great, and I’ve worked for some great people. Ok, only a few, but that counts.

              • It makes this article from Politico look even more ridiculous: completely ordinary behaviour for a newsroom, but because it’s a woman it’s Drama! Conflict! Failure!
                http://www.politico.com/story/2013/04/new-york-times-turbulence-90544.html

                • An argument between two people in a newsroom is news? Puh-lease. You are so right. It’s about undermining her. And it’s disgusting and completely unfair that another journalist will grant anonymity to people who want to say nasty things about Adamson without consequence. Who are those people? Were they overlooked for the exec editor role and are now trying to get rid of her? Did Adamson pull them up for poor performance, so they’re having a go at her now? When did journalists stop asking questions about people’s motives? Or maybe they never did.

                  All of those things that she’s described as – “Staffers commend her skills and her experience but question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper. At times, they say, her attitude toward editors and reporters leaves everyone feeling demoralized; on other occasions, she can seem disengaged or uncaring.” – can be used to describe most male editors I’ve worked for, and no one complains about that. It’s a one-sided smear article.

  3. I don’t mind rewrites at all when they do a couple of things:
    1) as you say, reference and link back to the original
    2) be very accurate
    3) follow 1 and 2 very well.
    Scott

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