When Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock resigned from her position after making her second aggregation error in four months on blogPost, the Post’s breaking news blog, ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote an opinion piece asserting that the paper had failed Flock as a young journalist; soon after Pexton’s column was published, a wave of criticism and concerns about the dangers of blogging surfaced, Poynter reported.
According to Pexton’s article, Flock was often the only reporter writing for blogPost, writing an average of 5.9 posts per day on a wide array of topics. The blog was meant to achieve 1-2 million views per month, the article said.
Flock’s first error, which earned her a strongly-worded editor’s note criticizing her actions, was in reporting a viral but false story that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had used a slogan favored by the Ku Klux Klan in one of his speeches—without calling the campaign to confirm before publishing, the article said.
Flock’s second mistake was in failing to accredit her sources in an aggregated article about life on Mars, the article said. Discovery News, who originally ran the story, cried foul, after which Flock decided to resign, the article said.
Instead of denouncing Flock’s actions as plagiarism, though, Pexton claimed that the Post hadn’t done enough to properly train Flock and other young bloggers he spoke to.
“They said that they felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing,” he wrote. “Guidelines for aggregating stories are almost nonexistent, they said.”
In an interview with Poynter, however, Post Executive Director of Digital News Katharine Zaleski countered that the Post does in fact spend time training young bloggers, and that Pexton’s characterization of the paper’s digital policies was untrue.
“The ombudsman said there weren’t guidelines,” she said in the article. “We worked for months on guidelines. They have very clear sections on blogging, and it’s all about accuracy. There’s a lot of things here that have nothing to do with traffic goals.”
Indeed, the Post lists a set of digital publishing guidelines on its website that directly address issues of posting speed versus accuracy of content.
“While timeliness is crucial, the overriding concern for accuracy should always prompt us to consider whether additional reporting should be undertaken before publishing and how information should be presented and, in some cases, qualified,” the guidelines read. “In a major news event, readers may soon forget who first broke a story, but they are less likely to forget a devastating inaccuracy.”
Poynter also noted that some outside of the Post criticized Flock’s actions and accused the ombudsman as going soft on plagiarism. Others felt sympathy for Flock and the pressures she was under, but emphasized that that was no excuse for plagiarism, the article said.
This is not the first instance of a young blogger losing a position over aggregation issues; as we previously reported, a blogger from The Huffington Post was suspended for allegedly rewriting an article from AdAge without driving enough traffic back to the original post. Response to the HuffPo incident was similar to Flock’s case, with some, like Gawker, suggesting that young bloggers are just doing what the higher-ups tell them to do, and that the real blame lies with the editors who fail to give bloggers proper guidelines.
If anything can be learned from Flock’s story, it is the idea that young writers must be extremely careful what they publish on the web under their names, regardless of pressures they face from editors or publishers, Megan Carpentier of The Raw Story suggested.
She writes, “it’s easy to chase the pageviews — hardly anyone becomes a writer not to be read — and it’s easy to acquiesce to the demands of an editor who has less-than-your-best interests at heart as a writer when looking at his or her stats or the deadline ahead. But at the end of the day, it’s your byline on a piece, it’s your career and it’s your future in this business at stake…”
With the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle, as well as the predominance of aggregated content on the web, young journalists certainly have a lot to be cautious of.