Website That Excerpts Work of Journalists Without Their Permission Crosses an Ethical Line

A frequent complaint reporters hear about their stories pertains to headlines. Often they will agree (somewhat), throw up their hands in frustration and say, “I didn’t write the headline.”

Which is true. Editors generally write headlines. It’s not an easy task. When I was a one-time editor just starting out, I pretty much sucked at it. Many of the headlines I put on stories I edited were bland, so seasoned editors higher up the masthead slapped on punchier titles. Eventually my creative juices kicked in and I got better at it, but I’ve always been a self-conscious headline writer. The tension between accuracy and catchiness still gnaws at me, even when writing headlines for a blog post.

Today, in the Internet age, the hunt for eyeballs is a fierce competition. Clickbait headlines call out to us everywhere. Social media ratchets up the hyperbole quotient, as CJR recently noted:

The art of writing a headline—fitting an accurate, compelling, occasionally clever description of a story into a tight space—has been on the decline since the rise of Twitter and Facebook. The “newsfeeds” on those sites, and others like them, are tailor-made for posts topped by come-hither pitches that overpromise on stories that underdeliver.

But we’ve all grown accustomed to this, right? I know I have. The sheer prevalence of clickbait is such that it is like background noise.

What I can’t ever get used to, much less fathom, is when headlines are blatantly, egregiously wrong.

So it was a mix of anger and puzzlement that I felt yesterday when seeing this headline at the website Genetic Literacy: “Did Brooke Borel cross ethical line in criticizing Kevin Folta GMO parody site?”

The headline was above my byline. The website, run by Jon Entine, had poached a blog post of mine, which discussed why Borel’s recent profile of a biotech scientist was both accurate and newsworthy. Nowhere in my post did I even remotely suggest that Borel had crossed an ethical line. There is no way you could walk away from reading my post with that question in your mind.

It’s bad enough that a website built on the aggregated work of journalists takes something that belongs to you without asking for permission. It’s outrageous when the website truncates your text in ways that change the meaning of what you wrote, which is also what Genetic Literacy is guilty of doing with respect to my post. It’s infuriating and unforgivable when the person who stole your text puts his own flatly wrong headline above it.

What’s obvious is that the publisher of the website–Jon Entine–has a negative view of Borel’s story and projected that onto my post.

So to recap: My work is appropriated without permission, excerpted improperly on an aggregated content website, and fitted with a headline that does not reflect in the slightest what I wrote.

That’s crossing an ethical line.

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