Aggregation and curation in journalism

About two months ago, I had to explain the concept and use of aggregation in online journalism to a group of journalists (mostly editors) in Vietnam. I found most of my material in this blog post by Steve Buttry — and in fact, much of what you need to know is in his headline: Link, attribute, add value.

To aggregate is to bring things together in one place, to gather a number of different items, to create a collection.

“Aggregation and curation are techniques of using content from other sources to provide content for your audience. They occupy overlapping spaces …” (Buttry)

Types of aggregation can be viewed as a continuum:

  • Fully automated, no humans are selecting content (for example, Google search)
  • Partly automated (for example, an RSS feed from one or mored selected sources)
  • Only automated in a small way (for example, a reporter performs numerous Google searches to create a short list of links to useful resources)
  • Not automated at all: Mainly uses human intelligence and judgment (for example, a reporter interviews several experts to compile a set of items culled from various sources) — this is more like curation

A couple of generalized examples from Buttry:

  • “Original reporting supplemented by curation of some background content from your [newspaper’s] own archives”
  • “Aggregation of data from public records, with value added by [the reporter’s] original analysis and/or reporting”

Is aggregation ethical?

You might ask: Why is this acceptable? How is it different from stealing, or violating copyright?

Aggregation can be done ethically if you follow these guidelines:

  1. Always link to the original source.
  2. Always include clear attribution (in addition to the link). For an example, see the first paragraph of this post.
  3. “Attribution helps consumers evaluate the reliability of information.” (Buttry)
  4. Always use quotation marks (as in the previous item) when you copy and paste someone else’s text.
  5. Add value to the material — add original reporting, updates, analysis (see examples below).
  6. Another way to add value is to summarize and/or compare reports from several other sources.
  7. Do not simply copy information, especially from unknown or unreliable sources.
  8. Part of the value that you add is that you are using only sources that you trust.

As a teacher, I realize that students do not know how to apply these ethical principles to aggregation — so this is now something we need to teach, explicitly, in the j-schools.

Three examples

Here are three very different examples of aggregation, each produced by a journalism organization:

Giant panda at Zoo Atlanta gives birth to twins (The Washington Post). This photo gallery gives us an example that won’t seem at all strange to experienced journalists — it’s a collection of photos from various wire services. We can assume that The Washington Post has paid all appropriate fees and has the legal right to publish each of these photos online. (For students, we have to make the point that it’s not legal to grab photos from websites and compile a gallery — that would be breaking the law, as BuzzFeed recently learned.)

Interesting points about the panda gallery:

  • Not a single photo was taken by a Washington Post photographer.
  • The panda twins were born at the Atlanta zoo, not the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
  • Only ONE photo in the gallery shows the new panda cubs.

Timeline: Syria’s bloodiest days (BBC News). In this text-only example, the news organization is aggregating or curating from itself. Every event listed in this timeline includes a link to a past BBC story about that event. I would be inclined to label this example curation, because it represents a careful process of selection and culling.

11 disturbing things [Edward] Snowden has taught us (so far) (GlobalPost). The (considerable) value added in this example is in the summary of a long and complex story. Each point has a link to an original source. Seven of the 12 links go to The Guardian, which broke the story; there are five links to other original news reports about this case. We could probably have a long discussion about whether this story is too derivative of Guardian reporting — I would argue that the value of the summary, and the “consequence” written for each of the 11 points, more than justifies the right of GlobalPost to publish this.

Are you teaching journalism students how to aggregate and curate?

UPDATE (Sept. 8): Steve Buttry approves of this post.

9 Comments on “Aggregation and curation in journalism

  1. Thanks for this post. Because I do teach aggregation and curation (in Multimedia Journalism class at Florida Atlantic), I’m assigning my students to read this.I really like your discussion of practices that make aggregation ethical.

  2. Pingback: Mindy McAdams adds value to my post on aggregation | The Buttry Diary

  3. Thanks Mindy appreciate this useful summary. We are teaching first years curation/aggregation because we believe it is now a key skill.

    I think the other area of aggregation and curation worth mentioning is the curation of social media through tools like Storify. Aggregated Twitter reaction to stories was a key part of media coverage in our recent election campaign. An example here:

    I also used Storify in some of my of coverage of the media during the campaign:

    I think that tools like Storify are good tools that help us “think” as well as “produce” curated stories because they work in moveable interconnected modules or chunks

  4. @Marcus O’Donnell – thanks for the links to examples! I love using Storify, but I think some created Storifys would be much improved by the addition of some text and subheadings to break up the stack, especially when it’s all tweets.

    As a tool for curation, Storify is fabulous.

  5. Thank you. Your examples are really useful. I have taught aggregation/curation to first year Digital Journalism students and post-grads at the University of Salford (UK). It can be tricky to explain the ethics of it and the importance of “adding value.”

  6. @lizhannaford You are so right — the concepts are difficult for students to understand. I think they often have too much of a “do this as homework for class” mentality, rather than a “do this as a professional would” mind-set.

  7. Mindy, very timely. My students are wary and uncomfortable when we talk about aggregation and curation, and this makes clear how links are adding value. Thanks. We’ll be using this class and Steve Buttry’s work too. So meta to link to Steve and demonstrate adding value in action.

  8. Pingback: The Attack of the Aggregators | University Life: An Exploration

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