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Thoughts on Attribution

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The news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of the US military has created a lot of news over the past week.  There has been celebration, anger, and sadness surrounding the incident, but there’s also been a side effect that’s also been highlighted: The lack of proper attribution for quotes.

Now, I’m not talking about the kind where a reporter messes up a quote or omits and important fact.  I’m referring to two quotes going around.  One is supposedly from Mark Twain and the other from Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I haven’t seen the Twain quote, I have seen a lot of the King quote on Facebook as it spread through my friends.  For those that haven’t seen the quote, it is as follows:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”~Martin Luther King, Jr.

The last part of the quote, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” is from one of his many sermons, but the rest are the words of a young woman from Japan that was responding to the news of bin Laden’s death.  The Atlantic wrote a few articles about the quote, one suspicious and one with the truth in addition to some of their past posts on misattributed quotes.

It’s nice to see that Jessica Dovey wasn’t planning to hijack King for her own ends, but it is sad to see that people just don’t care about making sure the quotes are correct.  The internet seems increasingly driven by laziness and inattention and not by the free flow of accurate information.

It was pointed out to several of my friends on Facebook that the quote was inaccurate, but their response appalled me.  Most had no issue with the fact that it was a misquote and a few had no problem with the idea of me hijacking their name to create whatever quote I wanted (as long as it was cool or intelligent).  It terrifies me that they consider this acceptable behavior in the realm of reporting and information distribution.

The digital age is causing the decline of professional journalism and bringing about the rise of widely distributed citizen journalism.  While this is a bit of a problem for people interested in a journalism-related career (like me), it also means that the new citizen journalists should probably start learning how to do their job correctly.  Check your facts and make sure your quotes are right.  This applies to anyone wishing to disseminate knowledge in a public forum.

While I’m not clear on the legal standing of an issue like this, mistakes can lead to expensive lawsuits.  Sure, the suing party might not win, but there’s still a good chance you’ll spend a fair amount on legal fees.  It’s scary to think that there are people trying to make a living and posting about news without checking their facts or performing due diligence on the information they’ve gleaned from effectively anonymous sources on the internet.

While you can usually trust large commercial websites tied to known news entities like CNN, BBC, and other large-scale news organizations, smaller websites and blogs run by people as a hobby or independent job don’t always follow the due diligence expected by their professional peers.  It’s not necessarily from laziness or malice, it could just be the way they’ve always operated.  I certainly wouldn’t have known what precautions to take when checking information without having taken an ethics class or a media law class, so why should the average untrained person know?

The internet has grown quickly and become a part of our everyday life.  I fear that its convenience and ease of access has made us complacent and outpaced the population’s education on making sure the information you share is correct.


Written by Christopher Siler

2011/05/05 at 07:22

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