As more and more newsroom refugees move over to content marketing, and as more companies understand that they are now media outlets themselves, we as an industry are having to relearn the big lessons from journalism school.
These are pretty easy rules:
- Don’t lie.
- Verify your facts.
- Don’t steal the words of other people.
Sometimes, media outlets and content creators play fast and loose with these rules, which can blow up into PR nightmares.
Case in point: In August 2013, Monsanto ran radio ads in the South African market touting a “‘healthier environment’ and ‘more food sustainably’” via genetically modified crops, according to RT. Monsanto’s actual claims, from the piece, indicated that genetically modified crops would:
- “enable us to produce more food sustainably whilst using fewer resources;
- “provide a healthier environment by saving on pesticides; [and]
- “decrease greenhouse gas emissions and increase crop yields substantially”
The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa received complaints from various individuals and groups disputing those claims, and ultimately the ASA forced Monsanto South Africa to remove the ads, prompting Monsanto to issue a press release praising the ASA’s diligence.
To be sure, Monsanto and genetically modified crops are scrutinized to a degree most of us will never experience, but this actually makes the lesson all the more useful.
If your marketing and PR teams edit their content, ads and press releases with an anticipation for that kind of scrutiny, you’ll provide a valuable line of defense for your company and its brand against hits to its reputation and potential lawsuits.
With content marketing, however, there is much greyer area than broadcasting unsubstantiated claims.
A good editor should be able to spot and fix any falsehoods, factual errors or plagiarism in your content. Here is what you need to know to be able to navigate those murky waters as well as any good editor could.
The Surprising Ways False Information Can Sneak Into Your Copy
The Content Creators’ Professional Biases
One of the biggest media stories from the last year was Rolling Stone magazine’s botched coverage of an alleged case of rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine subsequently ran a report from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism about what went wrong in its reporting.
Maya Dusenbery, the Executive Director at Feministing and herself a trained fact-checker, had an interesting take on how the UVA rape story shed some light on inherent biases in journalism.
Journalism, Dusenbery wrote, has a bias toward a “good story,” and this tendency toward a clean narrative structure can smooth over nuance or simply distort reality.
“Fact-checkers work to protect the integrity of sources’ stories against this bias,” she said. “Journalists are storytellers who use other people’s stories to build their own. In doing so, they chop up other people’s truths, make them incomplete, and put them in service of their own overall narrative.
“That’s not a criticism of journalists, most of whom, in my experience, care deeply about responsibly representing their sources — it’s just the way journalism works. At its best, this process produces a story that tells a bigger truth than any of the partial truths that make it up.
“But in weaving their narrative, journalists always hold rather terrifying power to transform other people’s truths.”
The same holds true for content marketers. While a narrative structure gets a message to stick, favoring that structure exposes the content creator to the same issues Dusenbery highlighted.
Normal Human Biases
Furthermore, we as humans are subject to our own various cognitive biases, and thus our own interpretations of reality and what we understand to be facts.
Veteran journalist Alexis Madrigal caught one of those phenomena at work in another huge and recent media story: The viral image of the dress that half the world saw as gold and white and the other half saw as black and gold.
The dress should remind us all: what you see is mostly a projection of what your brain expected to see.
— Alexis C. Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) February 27, 2015
The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova had a thoughtful piece on human biases in May 2014 that drew heavily from the research of Brendan Nyhan, a researcher and writer who has been publicly fact-checking political stories since 2001, and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, who has published extensively on how people come to believe misinformation.
Konnikova cited one particular study Lewandowsky conducted in Australia in which students were presented with a story about a liquor store robbery. In one scenario, the details led students to believe the suspect was Aboriginal; in the other group, Caucasian.
For some of the students, then, the report went back on earlier claims that the suspect was Aboriginal.
Later, the students were asked both factual questions about the case and questions that forced them to infer some details, and the students were then given questionnaires to determine their attitudes toward Aboriginals.
Lewandowsky discovered that the students who scored highly for racial prejudice toward Aboriginals continued to infer elements of the case based on their attitudes toward that particular ethnic group, even when it was revealed to them — and they acknowledged the fact that — the suspect was not Aboriginal.
“This was, in other words, a laboratory case of the very dynamic that Nyhan identified: strongly held beliefs continued to influence judgment, despite correction attempts—even with a supposedly conscious awareness of what was happening,” Konnikova wrote.
Think back to that Monsanto South Africa story at the beginning of this piece. If I had asked you to infer something about Monsanto’s business practices in South Africa, would your opinion on that company — or your beliefs about genetically modified crops — have affected your answer?
Would those same opinions influence the way you wrote about Monsanto or presented facts about that company?
It’s easy to say “No” right now, but an editor might say otherwise.
How to Catch Biases and Edit for Accuracy
Before diving into the nuts and bolts of editing, I wanted to share one helpful tip for content marketers who have the luxury of non-urgent deadlines.
Stacey Roberts at Problogger advocates author Stephen King’s method of self editing:
“Stephen King puts his work (literally) in a drawer, and comes back a couple of months later to edit and tweak. You can come back sooner than that, but fresh eyes and a clear head make a world of difference when it comes to editing.”
When it comes to identifying biases and actual weaknesses in your own writing, that time away will be tremendously helpful.
Your (or your editor’s) first step in the substantive editing phase, then, will be to check the accuracy of everything that has been written.
The Accuracy Checklist
Craig Silverman, now editor at BuzzFeed Canada, has argued for years that reporters should check the accuracy of their work against a checklist.
In a classic piece at the Columbia Journalism Review, Silverman argued in 2009 that pilots and healthcare professionals check their work against a checklist, so why not reporters?
“One reason is that newsrooms often put too much emphasis on experience,” Silverman wrote. “The assumption is that a veteran reporter or editor will make fewer errors than a rookie. But research doesn’t support this idea.
“In a 2000 article for the British Medical Journal, James Reason, one of the world’s leading researchers of human error, emphasized that ‘it is often the best people who make the worst mistakes — error is not the monopoly of an unfortunate few.’”
Silverman’s idea for a checklist covers everything from the spelling of a subject’s name to double-checking any math in a story.
Veteran reporter and visiting scholar at LSU’s School of Manship Mass Communication Steve Buttry took a cue from Silverman in 2011 and created his own accuracy checklist, which he shared on his website and is also embedded below for easy reference:
As automation becomes more commonplace in both marketing and reporting, we will start to see more examples of automatically generated copy and news stories.
This is where some really interesting ethical disclosure questions arise.
Columbia journalism professor Tom Kent explores some of those questions — plus basic quality controls — in his checklist for robot journalism.
At this point, Kent’s checklist is more of a jumping off point for a larger discussion about the ethics and the mechanisms for handing human storytelling over to the robots. Before our industry can do that at scale, though, there is one looming issue that has yet to be fully ironed out: Plagiarism.
If we can’t get this rule right, we’ll never be able to tell our robots how to do it correctly, either.
How to Sniff Out Plagiarized Copy
Accusations of plagiarism exposes publishers to reputational concerns and potential legal action. Editors should not take this stuff lightly.
If you are editing another writer, a simple check for word-for-word plagiarism is easy. Just use Ann Smarty’s method of Googling the copy itself.
“I usually take a sentence from the center of a random major paragraph, and put it in with quotations,” she says. “If it is a direct match, I will get the original source it came from. If there are no hits, I will remove the quotes and search a second time. If it is close to something that comes up with just small variations, that is a hit.”
The more nuanced issues of plagiarism stem from two specific practices that the Poynter journalism institute calls “quote lifting” and “patch writing.” Let’s take these one at a time.
Quote lifting is a practice “in which you incorporate a quote that was published elsewhere into your article, but make it seem like you were given it first hand by not mentioning the original source,” Dawn Papandrea writes at the Visual.ly blog.
As Papandrea points out (which I would be a hypocrite for failing to mention), the idea that informed her definition comes from Poynter.
Patch writing encompases a number of practices, including manual article spinning and unattributed paraphrasing.
Kelly McBride at Poynter says patch writing isn’t quite plagiarism, but it isn’t quite honest work, either.
“Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material,” McBride says. “It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.”
Her solution is to make sure the writer brings new ideas to the ideas being referenced.
“The litmus test is new value or new ideas. Writing that brings new value to the audience, maybe even writing that merely attempts to bring new value to the audience, is likely to be intellectually honest.”
Plagiarism Causes Additional Problems for Marketers
If you knew what manual spinning was a moment ago, then you probably already have a decent grasp on how plagiarized web copy can do damage to your SEO.
This is the case if you are the plagiarizer or the plagiarized, so you have a couple of checks to do here.
For your own copy, duplicate content will not necessarily incur a penalty, Guillaume Decugis writes at Scoop.It. This is important for anyone who curates content or quotes previously published sources.
“Though content discovery can be automated (and should be as it’s time consuming), content curators apply judgement before selecting what they publish,” Decugis says. “They also add context by adding value to their audience by telling them what it means for them.”
That judgement involves a few basic rules of thumb:
- Don’t swipe someone else’s content wholesale. Quote a relevant sentence or paragraph, then point readers to the original source.
- Attribute any ideas that don’t belong to you.
- Don’t appear spammy. We’ve all been using the internet long enough to know what’s spam and what’s not. In case you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution.
If Someone Plagiarizes You
Frustrating as it is, there are millions of people online who refuse to obey those three rules above.
Even more frustrating, that opens up the original content creators to potential duplicate content / spam penalties, so publishers and content marketers must stay vigilant about their work at all times.
Freelance writer Sherry Gray has a couple of nice tips at the SEMrush blog that will help automate this work for you.
First, Gray recommends using the SEMrush Position Tracking tool to compare your website to competitors.
“By monitoring your keywords, you can make sure your competition is not ripping off your content,” she says. “You can be sure your competitors are checking keywords rankings.”
Second, she recommends using IFTTT to set up an email alert that will let you know when your keywords appear on other domains. Cross-reference that with the information from the Position Tracking tool, and you should be able to find the plagiarizer quickly.
If you find someone stealing your content, you have a few steps you can take before involving any legal authorities, Anand Khanse at The Windows Club writes:
- You can contact the plagiarizing site’s administrator directly (you may have to use a WHOIS lookup).
- Use the WHOIS lookup to find the offending site’s ISP, and invoke the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by sending the ISP a takedown request. There is a sample letter here you can use.
- Request that Google remove the offending content from its search results by using the form that begins here.
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