Maybe Fareed Zakaria Should Be Punished With Aggregation Duty

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A dose of web journalism could give Zakaria a more rigorous sourcing ethos.

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Zakaria's new beat, learning the rules of citation through aggregation (Reuters).

Aggregation. It's the bane of old-school journalists who hate that some web kids out there take their hard-won reporting and wise analysis and throw it into content-management systems with a new byline on top. (They particularly hate the word "content," and love to scarequote it.) 

And I understand that. If you put in a lot of work, you want people to see it. To the victor, go the spoils, etc. 

We do a mix of original reporting and aggregation here, so I'm sympathetic to both sides. And yes, aggregating is a different game from reporting. Those who do the latter see all the ways that the former is not what they are doing, but may (in some circumstances) be more profitable, and it scares them (rightly). They can see that the routes to journalism's upper echelon may not run through the cop beat or covering those mythic schoolboard meetings but Gawker or our own Atlantic Wire. Being fast, knowing to how to find the good stuff in other people's work, and knowing how to sell a story may be success factors on par with talking up city councilors, chatting up local residents, or calling scientists. 

It's easy to see the downsides in such a skill set. If you're going fast, you make mistakes (which commenters graciously point out with vim and vigor). You do not independently verify everything you write about. You do not develop the same basic skillset as a reporter. Scoops are not your holy grail. Plus, because you are fundamentally in the distribution game, you get to know the icky quantified insides of web ecology and psychology a bit too well.

But what about the good stuff? Surely, the best of the aggregators out there are learning some fascinating things about how to be good online and all of them are training themselves into certain habits of thought. Our own Rebecca Greenfield mentioned this to me this morning when she read about Fareed Zakaria's liberal take on sourcing quotes in his book. As told to the Washington Post:

"As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted," his said. The book contains "hundreds" of comments and quotes that aren't attributed because doing so, in context, would "interrupt the flow for the reader," he said.

He compared his technique to other popular non-fiction authors. "Please look at other books in this genre and you will notice that I'm following standard practice," he said.

Let's put aside the assertion that people do not attribute quotes they did not hear with their own ears in any way in popular non-fiction books as a matter of debate (and annoyance to those of us who did labor at putting in hundreds of end notes).

"On the web, we're a lot of things, but you would never lift a quote and not provide a link or a source. It's just bizarre," Greenfield said to me. "Maybe it has to do with the idea that you would so obviously be caught, but it's also just how the job works."

An unsourced quote might pop up on Tumblr, but it would not happen with pro aggregators. Why? First, there are the ethical norms. Second, you'd get caught, by your commenters if no one else. But third -- and I'd argue most importantly, half the value the aggregator is providing is the quote and the other half is where it came from; a bunch of unsourced quotes would just not generate much interest or traffic. You think I'm kidding? Look at Gawker's top stories today. Every one of them (I clicked on a dozen) contains a source link and attribution. Same goes for The Wire.

Counterintuitively, we're training our aggregators to recognize the value in other people's work (and brands). We're telling them, "You're as good as the people you link to." 

And that's the opposite of how print editors have traditionally thought. It's an enduringly great attribute of print magazines that they rigorously fact-check their writing. But references to other publications are regularly stripped out of text headed to publication whenever possible at every magazine I know of. And man, how many bloggers out there have written a great story only to see the Wall Street Journal (or the Times or Newsweek, etc) rip off the idea and execution without so much as a hat tip?* If that's your journalistic upbringing, of course you wouldn't worry about using an uncited quote here or there.

So, perhaps, instead of suspending Fareed Zakaria for a month, Time and CNN should put him on aggregation duty. Every day, he comes into the office and he's got nine hours (probably skipping lunch) to get up six to eight beautifully sourced aggregation posts. I'm happy to front the cost of Mountain Dew. His first beat will be political fashion accessories, and after that, he can move on to gaffes and goats. 


* ("Has anyone written this up?" the editor asks.

"Just a blog," the writer says, clutching a printout of the post. 
"Oh, great!")
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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