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The Pinky Incident

Sun Editor Shares an In-House Study That Claims Some Local News Outlets Fail to Give Credit Where It’s Due

Christopher Myers
IT'S TIME TO ROLL THE CREDITS: Sun multimedia editor Steve Sullivan says his paper's reporting is often used by local news outlets that don't give the paper credit for its stories.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/1/2005

Whenever The Sun multimedia editor Steve Sullivan discusses the newspaper’s belief that its reporting is frequently used—but not so frequently credited—by other local media, he invariably brings up the pinky incident.

On Oct. 7, 2003, just as Tropical Storm Isabel was finishing up its second week of soaking the region, The Sun ran a story about storm-battered Hoopers Island, a tiny Eastern Shore island that reporter Stephanie Desmond described in her article as sticking out “like a pinky into the Chesapeake Bay.”

That morning Sullivan heard the on-air host at public radio station WYPR (88.1 FM) read a short item about beleaguered Hoopers Island (pop. 587), which he described as sticking out “like a little pinky in the Chesapeake Bay.”

Though the WYPR presenter didn’t announce that his report was an abridgment of the Sun story, Sullivan is secure in his convictions about its origins. “That Hoopers Island story had been sitting around here for [days] before it made it in the paper,” Sullivan says. “And the day we run it, YPR runs it. And the wording was almost identical.”

It wasn’t by accident that the unusual description stuck out in Sullivan’s mind like a sore little finger. For several weeks in the fall of 2003, he, with the help of two interns, had been recording and transcribing one hour of morning radio newscasts from WBAL (1090 AM) and WYPR and comparing them to stories in that day’s Sun. Sullivan says he conducted the internal study at the request of then-managing editor Tony Barbieri.

At a recent lunch at the Midtown Yacht Club restaurant near the Sun building, Sullivan produces a bulging gray binder filled with the results of that study, and explains the process he used.

“We made a chart of each newscast and ran down what stories they were using,” he says. “On the ones that were common to both of us, we checked if they had appeared on the [Associated Press] wire.” If the Sun story had moved to the wire, Sullivan would note on a chart whether AP had attributed it to the paper—and if so, whether that attribution had been included by the broadcaster.

As a member of the Associated Press, The Sun is obligated to share its content with other members, though it is also supposed to get credit for its own reporting.

In multiple instances, Sullivan says he found that the radio stations neglected to properly credit The Sun as the source of news, even when the AP did make the attribution. If a Sun story hadn’t been picked up by the AP wire—as in the Hoopers Island story—Sullivan assumed the offending broadcaster was simply “ripping and reading” the news directly from the morning paper.

WBAL radio news director Mark Miller says he’s not surprised by Sullivan’s conclusions, though he dismisses any notion that his reporters intentionally fail to attribute reporting to the daily: “I think it’s safe to say that the newspeople at WBAL radio respect the people at the Baltimore Sun, and I hope vice versa, and I don’t think anyone here would intentionally rip off the hard work of anyone else.”

When disputes arise, Miller says, it’s usually because of the way news is shared by the AP. “It’s a function of the [AP] wire, and if The Sun is complaining about it, they’re certainly guilty of it,” he says. “There have been stories we’ve done on the air that I know have been impetus for stories in The Sun. And it will appear in The Sun a day later or two days later, and they never say, ‘as first reported on WBAL.’”

WYPR program director and nightly music host Andy Bienstock is less sanguine about Sullivan’s complaints. “If the accusation is that we read The Sun and then we read their stories on air, I can tell you categorically that it’s not true,” Bienstock says, his familiar smooth voice turning thin. “And I’m disappointed that they think that.”

There’s disappointment enough to go around. Sullivan says he felt likewise let down by WYPR because its news department is staffed with several former Sun journalists, including news director C. Fraser Smith and reporters Joel McCord and Melody Simmons.

What Sullivan didn’t know is that WYPR, like hundreds of radio stations around the country, augments its own newsgathering with prepared texts from Metro Networks, a traffic news provider that also sells radio-ready news briefs and newscasts. WYPR may not take news directly from The Sun, but Metro Networks does.

As it has every right to do, local Metro staffers insist.

The Sun and Metro have an “agreement,” says Allison Kibler, Metro’s Baltimore news bureau chief.

“We’re allowed to use whomever we’re affiliated with,” explains Kristin Marshall, a Metro traffic and news reporter in Baltimore. “And that’s The Sun and [W]JZ-[TV] and others.” Metro’s affiliation with The Sun, Marshall adds, permits the Westwood One subsidiary to “use stuff from the paper in the morning.”

That’s news to the newspaper. “We don’t provide copy to Metro,” Sullivan writes in a follow-up e-mail. “Nobody here is aware of any agreement.”

Neither is Bill Yeager, Metro’s senior vice president for news. Reached on his cell phone in Los Angeles, Yeager tells City Paper that using The Sun as a news source would be a violation of company policy. “There would be no need to do that, anyway,” Yeager says, “because our own staff would be able to produce that material.”

As for suggestions that Metro Networks routinely neglects to properly attribute reporting to the original source, bureau chief Kibler says: “We’re very, very careful when we cover stories that we don’t steal from people. Because people here have gotten in trouble for that in the past.”

City Paper has obtained recent copies of Metro’s Baltimore morning news summaries. In none of the news briefs—several of which appear to use language that is the same as that used in The Sun—is credit given to the newspaper or any other source.

After hearing about the Sun’s complaints against Metro, WYPR’s Bienstock says the station is “concerned” and will investigate its relationship with the company. “[Metro] was put in place before I got here,” Bienstock says, noting that the decision to use it instead of AP “was largely a cost issue,” adding, “But I want people to understand that nobody here steals from The Sun, and that goes against everything we stand for.” As for the Sun’s suspicions that WYPR presenters were sometimes reading straight from the newspaper, Bienstock has a message for the daily: “Hey, you could’ve asked us.”

Indeed, Sullivan acknowledges that he never aired his suspicions to WYPR or WBAL radio directly. When asked what The Sun did with its 2003 research, Sullivan says the paper’s lawyers advised against pursuing a legal remedy. In the meantime, Sullivan says he continues to get regular complaints from staffers who believe their reporting has gone uncredited by other media outlets. He’s talking publicly about it now, he says, in hopes that a “public shaming” will encourage local media to more equitably credit each other’s newsgathering.

One Sun journalist who frequently brings complaints of this nature to Sullivan’s attention is police reporter Ryan Davis. Davis says he regularly hears his own work reported elsewhere without credit, but he insists that his protests are motivated less by ego than by the increasingly conventional wisdom that newspapers are no longer essential news sources.

“Any time you turn on the [TV] news or you listen to the news on the radio, you’re hearing things that were first reported in a newspaper,” Davis says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there was an ethical violation, as far as not giving credit, but it can be frustrating. When people talk about the death of the newspaper, you wonder whether they understand what the world would be like without newspapers. What would be out there?”

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