Using the ‘Steal-O-Meter’ to Gauge if Stories Steal or Promote

    by Mark Glaser
    August 13, 2009
    Steal-O-Meter image adapted from a photo by "Leo Reynolds":http://www.flickr.com/people/lwr/ via Flickr.

    In the recent dust-up between the Washington Post and Gawker, Post reporter Ian Shapira was upset when his story was excerpted on the media gossip blog Gawker. While blogs and even mainstream news articles have been quoting, excerpting and summarizing other stories and blog posts for years, there’s never been accepted etiquette on how to do so.

    According to Shapira, his editor told him: “They stole your story. Where’s your outrage, man?” Stealing is a serious charge in the world of journalism, even though story ideas, scoops and angles are stolen daily. If a blog is excerpting content from a news story and crediting and linking to the original, isn’t that so-called stealing really a form of promotion?

    If a blog is excerpting content from a news story and crediting the original, isn't that so-called stealing really a form of promotion?"

    The Post itself offers numerous ways for readers to share Shapira’s own story, from putting it on Digg, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Reddit and more. Are they telling people to “steal” the story or “promote” it? Where does the promotion end and the stealing begin?


    I had my own experience with Valleywag’s Owen Thomas excerpting a story I wrote on MediaShift last February about Second Life. While my original story probably received a couple thousand page views, the Valleywag post has had more than 60,000 views. The art I captured in Second Life for the story was lifted without my permission. There are two major quotes I got that were re-used in the blog post.

    But there is one key difference between the Post excerpt job and the one from MediaShift: Thomas did a better job re-framing the story with his own angle. His headline takes a much harder stance, “The End of Second Life,” while saying the virtual world is “firmly headed into irrelevance.” That’s something I never would have said, even though such a vehement statement is likely what brought all the traffic to Valleywag.

    So there’s a difference between the way Gawker heavily excerpted Shapira without adding much and the way Valleywag more lightly excerpted my story and gave its own spin on it. I decided the time is right to create a taxonomy of sorts for all the excerpting and linking that goes on between blogs and news organizations — and between news organizations as well.


    I wanted to create a graphical way to denote where a practice falls between “stealing” and “promoting” — so I included the “Steal-O-Meter” to show where it lands. A shout-out goes to the folks at PolitiFact for inspiring the meter.

    Drive-By Summary

    i-b73486b0a8aa15239193755e9933a022-stealometer steal side again.jpg

    What It Is: A blog post that excerpts heavily from the original story without adding any significant new material.

    Example: Generational Consultant Holds America’s Fakest Job at Gawker

    What’s Lifted: Multiple quotes from the story, usually the best ones.

    What’s Added: A summary of the rest of the story.

    Bottom Line: Appears to promote original story but doesn’t give people many reasons to check out the original.

    Summary with Spin

    i-b45921d981f420b9a6e2800dabe8559d-stealometer middle again.jpg

    What It Is: A blog post that excerpts heavily from the original story and also includes more material or a strong opinion or additional angle.

    Examples: The End of Second Life at Valleywag; Full Details On Mint’s $14 Million Series C Round at TechCrunch

    What’s Lifted: Usually a passage or paraphrase from the original story.

    What’s Added: A summary of the rest of the story, along with original ideas or reporting.

    Bottom Line: While it might be borrowing a lot from the original, at least it can stand on its own by adding original material.

    Deceptive Excerpt

    i-552ce0d3895a4b3520aa8c27e437d1ab-stealometer leans steal again.jpg

    What It Is: Excerpting other people’s stories with credit, but making it look like the writer is writing for the site that’s excerpting it.

    Example: AllThingsD’s Voices section. (The site used to point people to an internal page with the excerpt before going to the original site, but that practice has changed after complaints were filed.)

    What’s Lifted: The headline and first few paragraphs from the story verbatim.

    What’s Added: A link to the rest of the story on the original site.

    Bottom Line: Includes absolutely no original material, but does whet appetite to click to read more at original site. Should not include deceptive packaging.

    Retold Story with Credit

    i-552ce0d3895a4b3520aa8c27e437d1ab-stealometer leans steal again.jpg

    What It Is: News wires and other reporters simply retell a scoop from another news outlet, giving credit to the original report, lifting quotes and sometimes adding new material.

    Example: JPMorgan looking to sell 23 office properties — report at Reuters

    What’s Lifted: Most important news, quotes and storyline.

    What’s Added: A local or different angle, but usually not.

    Bottom Line: This common journalistic practice of repeating a story told elsewhere — but with credit — still doesn’t fly for doing anything original. Even worse is that these stories rarely link to the original online.

    Aggregator Blurb

    i-4b4ba2f07c6f71638d123adb8afc4524-stealometer promoting again.jpg

    What It Is: An automated news aggregation site reusing a headline and blurb, along with art, without adding anything new.

    Example: Anything found on Google News site.

    What’s Lifted: Headline, photo and the first line or two of the story.

    What’s Added: Nothing, though some stories now have original comments on Google News.

    Bottom Line: Google News drives tons of traffic to news sites, and reuses very little material. Very few users of Google News can get all their news just from the site without linking to originals.

    Reuse without Authorization

    i-b73486b0a8aa15239193755e9933a022-stealometer steal side again.jpg

    What It Is: Site scraping, where one site completely lifts all content from original without credit, linking out, or getting permission.

    Example: Year in Review — 10 MediaShifting Moments of 2007 with MediaShift content scraped by Panic Re-Programming

    What’s Lifted: Entire story, artwork and links.

    What’s Added: Credit for someone else.

    Bottom Line: Outright stealing with no credit and absolutely no redeeming quality. Not only is this wrong, but it’s illegal when used to make money off someone else’s copyrighted content.

    Link Love

    i-4b4ba2f07c6f71638d123adb8afc4524-stealometer promoting again.jpg

    What It Is: A blog that links out to related material on another site.

    Example: You can find it all over the blogosphere.

    What’s Lifted: A headline, a quote, or an idea.

    What’s Added: A whole new story around it.

    Bottom Line: Links are the currency of online journalism and blogging, and when used judiciously help to spread ideas and promote others without taking too much from them.


    I’m sure this is not even close to an exhaustive list of the ways stories are lifted or shared online. Add your own examples in the comments below, and tell us where you think it lands on the Steal-O-Meter, and I’ll add it above, with credit to you.

    UPDATE: Many folks in the comments were complaining that the Steal-O-Meter was weighted too heavily on stealing, without enough “yellow” in the middle and green on the “promoting” side. One person even mentioned that I had “stolen” the wrong kind of image. Fair enough, though the image was reused under a Creative Commons remix license. Anyhow, I went in with my crude Photoshop skills and fixed the images to give more weight to the middle and promotional sides so that stealing isn’t an overwhelming force. For those wondering, the underlying image is of a battery tester.

    Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

    Tagged: aggregation excerpts gawker promotion washington post

    17 responses to “Using the ‘Steal-O-Meter’ to Gauge if Stories Steal or Promote”

    1. Reader says:

      This is fantastic, thanks Mark!

      “Summary with Spin” is, I think, one of the worst abuses, because the “spin” is so often not original or additive in any meaningful way. A good deal of “SwS” is really just “Driveby.” Adding an ounce of snark, or telling us how awesome something is is not worthy. Some of the blogs I trod through daily remind me of Triumph the Insult Comment Dog, in that 90% of their content is total summary, followed by meaningless, predictable ending (“for me to poop on”). I think you should qualify that entry to apply to meaningful additions.

    2. I think the red part of the scale is too wide. Summary with spin is not stealing.

    3. I guess Reader and I have a different definition of Summary with Spin!

      To clarify, I read this: “also includes more material or a strong opinion or additional angle” to mean that value has been added. Not just drive-by snark or whatever.

      I think if you add value and link back, it’s not stealing. I don’t have an issue with where Mark has placed the arrow on Summary with Spin, I just think the meter beneath it shouldn’t be red, which on this meter means “stealing.”

      Also, neglected to say: The meter idea rocks!

    4. JD Lasica says:

      This is a fantastic post, Mark.

      Is there a way someone can create a widget for bloggers to post the Steal-O-Meter on their own sites when they come across an egregious example? (I assume these images are either photos or photoshopped images.)

      Also, a small note about copyright:

      >Not only is this wrong, but it can be illegal when used to make money off someone else’s copyrighted content.

      Actually, it’s a violation of copyright law whether the site is making money or not.

    5. Mark,

      re: “there’s never been accepted etiquette on how to do so…”

      The traditional convention is for the derived piece to lead with the source credit (and not tuck it at the bottom, as Gawker did here). This would be handy for anyone scanning stories via RSS as well (“The Washington Post reported today…”). So I’d give Gawker a demerit (as if they care) for burying the credit at the bottom.

      Newspapers stick with with the practice of peppering the story with continued references to the source (“…also reported”). TV news avoids this, since it’s obvious they’re cribbing the story unless they’ve filmed a segment.

      Obviously, bloggers who want to take to be taken seriously should follow a convention. Gawker, on the other hand…

    6. Glad you guys enjoyed the little Photoshopped meter I built. Yes, JD, it should be a widget. Will update on the copyright issue too.

      King: Agree that when someone adds new reporting it isn’t precisely stealing, so that needle could probably move more toward the middle. I’ll have to adjust it.

      And yes, Jon, putting the credit up top does make a huge difference.

    7. Benji says:

      This post on The Page today is more egregious than any of those, I think.

      What’s your take?

    8. In discussing this, I believe you have neglected the fact that real news belongs to everyone. If I wake up in the morning and read on Eschaton or Daily Kos that Iraq sent a nuke into Turkey, or that George Bush shot a Democratic Senator, it is common courtesy to mention the source, but the story in no way belongs to the first person to post it online. There is a public benefit when important information is made more available, and that. to me, is at least as important as any notion that someone owns the rights to a given set of facts.

    9. Andrew says:

      It’s a great post, and a great start to a discussion that seriously needs to be had. However, the amount of red in your meter shows an inherent bias against the so-called “currency” of the internet. If there is to be serious discussion of this there needs to be room for nuance and we really need to know where the gray (or yellow) area falls, so I would at least expand the yellow if not also the green. (I know this was lighthearted, but I’m just offering an opinion that I think could make it more useful as a serious shorthand evaluation tool.)

    10. John Vogel says:

      I think the red part of the dial is visually a bit big.
      There’s a log history of summaries (credited–otherwise why did you bother to summarize it) being used to convey the content of a piece. People also argue over it.
      If a writer talks about the average temperature in Phoenix in July, the central point, “It’s hot,” or “The average is 96.5 degrees,” is a fact that isn’t subject to ownership.
      I think it’s also a different situation if someone summarizes 20 articles on a topic. The act of selecting an summarizing them creates what is in fact a new work, different from each of the 20 articles summarized.
      Giving credit to where the original documents can be found and who’s responsible for it is both common sense and common decency.

    11. If news sites like forbes.com and Time.com stop their dirty practise of spliting articles and putting them on different pages just for increasing pageviews, I don’t think it is a crime if some one copies all the content and put them on one page in his blog.

    12. Clinton Freeman says:

      Yes. This is a great start for a much overdue discussion about the Internet.
      It’s unfortunate that this discussion is only slightly more advanced in other media (especially TV).

      Most bloggers seem to be trying to model the habits and conform to the standards they believe exist in TV. While most critics compare blogs (and bloggers) to the habits and standards of the best print material. The Internet is a mixed medium so it ends up resembling tabloid newspapers in content, presentation, and professional/ethical standards.
      Neil Postman might be right. It may all just be the difference between reading print and looking at pictures.
      What’s described as “stealing” seems to be designed to get people to look at pages while what’s described as “promoting” seems designed to get people to “read” information.

      BTW, there would be less disagreement about the meter if the author had stolen a better image. The controversy seems to be over the difference between what the words and the picture say.

    13. I appreciate all your feedback, folks. I’ve gone in and changed the images to give more weight to the yellow middle of the scale as well as the promotional green side. Hopefully this will show a better scale and range. I apologize for my crude Photoshop skills.

    14. John J. Lumpkin says:

      Very useful post, thanks. I do disagree with the contention that news wires “steal” reportage from other outlets (“Retold story with credit”). I’m a former AP guy, and I can assure you that when AP rewrites a story from one of its member newspapers, it is doing so under terms defined in AP’s contract with that news outlet. AP doesn’t have to credit the original paper, either, under the agreement, but rewrite staffers often do if it’s a significant scoop. My point: It ain’t stealing if both sides have already agreed to the exchange.

      In addition, there were times when a newspaper scored a big scoop, and we at AP didn’t rewrite it; we instead duplicated their reporting by going to original sources. We typically credited the newspaper with the scoop, using the phrase “first reported by” to note we were independently reporting it too.

    15. John,
      I agree that if the AP is simply running content from its member news organization then it’s not stealing. What I was referring to was when an outlet such as Reuters runs a ‘story’ that basically takes all the facts from a Wall Street Journal scoop, repeats every important detail and quote and doesn’t add anything new. They do give credit to the original news org, but don’t really add anything. What’s the point to these stories?

    16. Liz Petry says:

      Mark, you should patent the Steal-o-Meter. Check out my analysis at “Steal This Blog,” http://lizr128.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/steal-this-blog/

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media