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The Journalist: July 1999

Don't imitate. Innovate.

The internet is contributing to lazy journalism. Sean McManus says journalists must remember to add value in their reporting

Often magazines and broadcasters publish circular emails forwarded to them by their readers and listeners. Apart from the risk of a copyright suit from whoever wrote the original email (and wouldn't you just love to take part in that test case?), it makes tired editorial. By the time it reaches print, many people will have received it by email. The search for fresh ideas has been replaced by many journalists with the search for easy copy.

Emailed information is difficult to verify too as ABC News, New York Times and The Guardian discovered. According to ezine Need to Know and Top Five, the Cantonese film titles they all published as fact were invented by contributors to Top Five's website. The full list of 15 was appended to a genuine Wall Street Journal article about poorly translated film titles and released on the internet by an anonymous prankster. They included 'Field of Dreams' comically translated as 'Imaginary Dead Baseball Players Live in My Cornfield' and 'George of the Jungle' named 'Big Dumb Monkey-Man Keeps Whacking Tree With Genitals'. ABC News claims that their Chinese correspondent verified the film titles as true.

Articles sometimes appear in magazines and newspapers that just reproduce the content of websites or circular emails, without tracing or crediting the creator. After the fight to defend freelancers' copyright, it is ironic that some journalists do not respect the copyright and creativity of internet authors, who often write for the love of it and publish their work for free. Magazines also often promote websites that just pirate photos and articles from print, missing the point that the internet's strength is its ability to share new ideas and not just repackage old ones.

As newspapers try to guide their readers through cyberspace, they shouldn't compromise on originality. Journalists should seek out new websites and fresh ideas and then report on them, not just republish them. Readers will often have access to the same (or better) online sources than the journalist has. Now that most information is freely available online, journalists must ensure more than ever that they add value to the information they distribute.