12/13/2010 03:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why a Scoop Still Matters

In a public discussion Wednesday of media coverage of the 2010 election, the Denver Post's political editor Curtis Hubbard said if the Post reports on a news story that's appeared previously in another outlet, the newspaper is committed to giving proper credit to the news outlet that broke the story.

The Post is "trying very hard to give credit where credit is due," he told the audience of about 50 people. He said that, for his newspaper, this is a "sea change" in culture, but it's only fair, he said, given that the Post wants credit for its work.

I called State Bill Colorado Editor Don Knox, who previously quoted a Post editor saying the same thing, to discuss Hubbard's statement, and he told me Friday that he's seen "positive signs" at the Post lately.

"What I sense is that everybody is getting a bit better about it," he told me. "But in the end, there's no police, so you have to have the integrity to want to attribute."

That's the bottom line, and as Knox points out, if reporters do a Google News search prior to starting a story, they can usually determine if their story has been reported previously.

That part is easy, which isn't meant to imply that reporters or bloggers or others always do it. Or that it always works for various reasons.

But this issue has layers of complicating factors.

When does a news story become sufficiently established to become a fact of life, free for the taking without requiring a tip of the hat or a wag of the finger to anybody?

Knox says the length of time you continue to give credit for a scoop depends on the circumstances. "If you come in a month later, and write a story about it, and act like you're breaking it, that's where you should recognize other people's entrepreneurial journalism."

Semi-retired Post columnist Fred Brown, who's written on journalism ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, told me that once the "candidates are making a big issue of the story, the originating organization loses ownership of it."

He also said: "I think one of the ways you make the story part of the accepted history of the campaign [so as to no longer require credit] is to further it. If you turn up a new fact, you credit the originating organization once, but after that, it's as much your story as theirs because you've done reporting."

What about a reporter who gets a story idea from another publication and then confirms the story independently from the same or a different source?

Knox says this is a "red herring."

"It doesn't matter whether I got it from an individual source or a publication, I still acknowledge the publication that had it first," he said.

I asked Brown what he thought a news outlet should do if it discovers later that it failed to credit the work of a publication that reported on a story first.

He first said he sympathizes with reporters who might miss something due to the large number of news sources out there.

Then he said he'd first have to be convinced that another news organization had the story right. If so, he said, to be fair and credible, he'd write a clarification, possibly for the archive, or mention it in a follow-up story, if there were one.

"It's not a huge ethical issue," he said. "It's more a matter of manners, to go back and give credit to the originating organization."

Brown goes on to say that the public doesn't care about who got it first.

And even big scoops can't do much for newspaper sales these days, when news consumers get the same big news instantly as it spreads across the media.

But scoops are far from meaningless. In fact, they're really important. They show people that a news organization is doing its job, doing reporting, breaking news.

Giving a news organization proper credit for its work, and abiding by reasonable fair-use policies, displays a basic understanding that journalism isn't free.

Proper credit helps the outfit that dug up the news pay its bills, through its ads that you see when you click through to its website to read more.

The name recognition for getting proper credit also helps. The links help. The respect helps.

It adds up, and gives everyone, bloggers and legacy media, a chance to survive based on their own work, not somebody else's.