Does Radio News Rip Off Newspapers?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
T his past summer, Peter Brush flipped on the radio while driving to work at Maryland's Hagerstown Herald Mail. The newscaster was presenting a story about people running red lights.
"I had just written a story about people running red lights," he recalls. "Unless they had someone reporting who writes a lot like me, they were reading my story out of the newspaper."
Other print journalists insist their stories have also been read over the air without credit, leaving the impression with listeners that the station did its own reporting. While most do no more than grumble privately, two newspapers in Reading, Pennsylvania, earlier this year took the issue to court, alleging that a station had lifted stories without credit.
Print reporters queried via the Internet seemed to shrug and sigh when asked about the practice, as if to say they've come to accept such theft as part of the game. A few even say they take it as a compliment.
jWay back when I worked for a paper, I used to get upset if I had a hot story and the local radio station didn't steal it," recalls C.B. Hackworth, a producer with Atlanta's WXIA-TV. Adds Darren Marcy, an editor with the evening Portales News-Tribune in New Mexico, "I thought, 'What the heck.' They considered me an expert."
Janeen Crowley, a former police reporter for the Peoria Journal Star, says she initially became angry whenever she heard her stories being used without credit, but that her second reaction was relief that "it wasn't some breaking story I might have to chase. I've never been a morning person."
Print reporters offered numerous tales of radio rip-offs. One described a news director who cut-and-pasted her morning newscasts from USA Today; another recalled his sports editor at a California daily being disgusted enough to risk his credibility by printing a fake story to catch a station in the act; a third noted that WNGC-FM of Athens, Georgia, promotes its newscasts by assuring listeners it does "more than just read the newspaper over the air." (Explains WNGC's Sandra Moody, "It refers to one of our biggest local rivals here – and most of the other stations in Athens, actually.")
Radio veterans counter that while some unscrupulous colleagues have always plagiarized from newspapers, many others build on print stories with additional reporting, making them their own. And if a station subscribes to the Associated Press, they're paying to use the material, even if it had been contributed by the local paper. You can't copyright news, broadcasters point out, only the way news is presented.
Still, some newspapers feel strongly enough about hearing "their" news on the air that an editor or corporate lawyer will send a polite cease-and-desist letter. Last year, the Reading Eagle Co., owner of the morning Times, the afternoon Eagle and a local radio station, WEEU-AM, went further and filed suit in U.S. District Court against WIOV, alleging that it was lifting stories. The papers have asked for at least $50,000 in damages.
WIOV says anchor and News Director Jeffrey Werner does his own reporting, and it disputes the Reading papers' claims of copyright infringement, misappropriation of property and unfair competition. The case is expected to go to trial early next year.
ýAlmost everyone faces this issue," observes David Morgan, a lawyer who represents the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association. In many places, he says, "all you have to do is listen to the morning radio shows and have a copy of the newspaper and you can follow [along]."
Court documents filed by the Reading papers include transcripts of five items presented by WIOV in July 1993 that were similar enough to stories from that day's paper to raise suspicions. For example, on July 9, the Times ran a story with this lead: "Twoªpythons are now slithering around in the woods of Maxatawny Township, their new home as a result of being released by a couple of teenagers who stole them in Kutztown."
òt 6:06 a.m. that same day, according to the suit, WIOV reported: "Two pythons are now slithering around in the woods of Maxatawny Township. Their new home is the result of being released by a couple of teenagers who stole them in Kutztown."
David Bartlett, presiddent of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, isn't convinced radio rip-offs are as widespread as print reporters claim. "It's not uncommon for radio stations to get news from newspapers," he says. "But to do it without crediting is just out of bounds."
"Any radio newsperson worth his or her salt will provide the proper credit," adds Scot Witt, news director of WDCB in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and a 20-year veteran of radio news. "But the fact is that most radio operations are extremely understaffed, and the loss of so many newsrooms in recent years has placed the editorial pen in the hands of a lot of unqualified folks."