Recommendation No.15. On how to refer to information obtained from other media?
A recent study by the American Press Institute found that audiences consider news reports to be more reliable if they contain detailed information about the sources, include a link to the original source, and explain the reason for disseminating particular news stories. The media themselves believe that a distinct line drawn between facts and judgments and also a clear reference to the source will help counter disinformation. Yet is a reference to the information source a panacea? Let us review Ukrainian media’s practice of cross-referencing to see whether it is enough to simply include a link to another media company’s publication.
Ukrainian society may have already forgotten about the situation surrounding the resignation of Andriy Bohdan, former head of the President’s Office. A resignation, which did not happen at the time but was reported on extensively by the Ukrainian media. Other interesting examples include the Ukrainian language reportedly named as the most melodious language at an international language contest and our hryvnia named as the most beautiful paper currency. This information was periodically reported by numerous different media outlets, but neither the language contest nor a competition on how nice currencies look have ever been held. Another example became epic with Ukrainian media: dozens of TV channels and online media portals disseminated the story of an onslaught of lightning balls in Ukraine, although this news was made up as part of the Behind the News campaign to combat disinformation. As for other recent examples, we cannot walk past the “TikTok Faculty” that turned out to be an optional course, although the disinformation element, in this case, was provoked by the presentation of the “faculty” itself. However, before the truth came to light, dozens of media outlets had already disseminated the information not backed by official documents due to the topic’s popularity. Contrastingly, there are less illustrious examples of journalists incorrectly referring to material published by other media outlets. An example of this is the infamous situation in Kaharlyk, on which the Independent Media Council issued a separate opinion and whereby the victim’s name was mentioned in a TSN story and later republished by dozens of other media outlets. And in still another case, a study by the IMI showed that the media often publish other outlets’ material without proper attribution, citations, and borrowings.
The conclusion from all the above examples is that Ukrainian media should improve their work with information sources, develop a culture of selecting and verifying sources and links to them. Especially in cases where there is a link to other media companies’ publications. For instance, the US Society of Professional Journalists included detailed rules on how to work with sources in their Code of Ethics. Besides other things, journalists should use the original sources, prioritize quality information over speed, provide context for the data being disseminated, and identify sources clearly by providing access to them, if possible and appropriate. However, even such guidelines for working with sources is not exhaustive. That is why the Independent Media Council offers you its own, somewhat expanded guidelines for journalists to help them properly refer to other media and the original information sources.
1. Sources of information. Overall, sources of information can be divided into primary and secondary. The first category encompasses data/information from direct participants in the situation reported on by the media, original documents, videos from the scene, etc. The second category includes the review of primary sources on the part of other media outlets, experts, and analysts. It also includes reports from the relatives of direct participants in the events, copies of documents, etc. As for standards for working with the first category of sources, everything is more or less obvious: the European Court of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as the ECtHR) has repeatedly stated that such information sources as official documents are reliable per se and sufficient to confirm facts (see Gorelishvili v. Georgia, §41). Therefore, the only thing a journalist should do is check the authenticity of the document that came into their hands (authenticity of the website hosting the information, etc.), and sometimes contact relevant authorities and confirm/clarify the information.
Working with secondary sources is more complicated. For instance, in Verlagsgruppe Droemer Knaur GmbH & Co. KG v. Germany, the ECtHR noted that a distinction should be made between source types based on which the media reports on possible crimes or accusations. And if official, publicly accessible documents provide unambiguous and largely undisputed data, sensitive information disseminated by whistleblowers or off the record needs additional verification and confirmation. Another example is a word-for-word reproduction of material from other news portals as in Editorial Board of Pravoye Delo and Shtekel v. Ukraine, which also requires additional research because the levels of portals’ reliability can vary significantly. In this regard, Cristina Tardáguila, the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director, said journalists themselves bore a big responsibility not to uncritically republish misleading claims from other media outlets or third-party portals. Carelessness in reporting sensational news often leads to dangerous narratives put forward by popular media (indirect calls for discrimination, influencing voter opinion, conspiracy theories, etc.) that later fill the entire information space. Dozens of media outlets republish information, significantly distorting its original content, often reinforcing negative narratives, making them even more persuasive and the source reliable. Denying and countering such harmful information is an extremely difficult and, sometimes simply impossible, task. Similar risks arise when republishing information obtained by other media from anonymous sources. In such situations, journalists should be aware of the possible spread of inaccurate data, manipulation or bad faith, as well as deliberate disclosure of information for political or other purposes.
In addition, information from social networks should be treated with extreme care and caution. On the one hand, it has been repeatedly noted that social networks help the media diversify their sources of information and interact with them much more effectively. For instance, thanks to the arrival of social networks, citizen journalism emerged, a concept protecting the right of ordinary people to report on information in the public interest, imparting it to journalists and publishing it openly in their blogs or social network pages (such as YouTube channels in Cengiz and Others v. Turkey, §52). However, there is a flip side to this coin: social networks’ unreliability as a source of information. Posts from social networks (even if created by officials’ accounts or posted on the pages of state or municipal authorities) can always be deleted, corrected or hidden, and messenger chats edited. Furthermore, if accounts lack proper verification marks, it is often impossible to officially prove account holders’ identity on the network, which is quite dangerous since it makes the information source unreliable.
Therefore, sources should be selected with extreme caution not only in terms of their number but also in terms of their quality, ability to prove the authenticity of the portal, and the primary source of information.
2. When references to other media outlets should not be made. Establishing a source’s authenticity and other media’s reliability is sometimes not enough to avoid violations. This applies to cases where other media outlets themselves publish material with procedural (illegally obtained information) or content (disclosing state secrets, hate speech, privacy issues, etc.) violations.
For instance, in the above case in Kaharlyk, when the victim’s name was mentioned in a TSN news story and later republished by numerous media outlets on their portals. A similar situation occurred during a large-scale leak of personal data including names and addresses of those having COVID-19 when numerous media outlets reporting on violations disseminated the information over and over again. Although according to the ECtHR’s position in Reinboth and Others v. Finland, there is no particular need to prevent the disclosure of the information already known and possibly available to the public (§87), it only applies to cases where data is in the public interest, and it is impossible to get a complete picture of a particular issue without them. However, in cases similar to Aleksey Ovchinnikov v. Russia concerning information about intimate life, minors or other sensitive issues, the ECtHR recognized that the other media companies’ republications were more harmful to the person featured in the article than if the article were disseminated by only one media outlet (§51-52). The court specifically emphasized that, although the information was no longer protected as confidential, it remained restricted for dissemination being detrimental to the person’s reputation and privacy (§49-50). A similar approach is used by national courts. For instance, in Douglas v. Hello!, the UK Court of Appeal noted that publishing certain personal data will always constitute a violation of the right to privacy: each new viewing of such information by users will be an invasion of privacy, regardless of whether the data has long been in the public domain. As a result, the media should not disseminate sensitive information, even when it allegedly ceased to be confidential because large-scale dissemination may still cause significant harm to those involved.
The most common procedural violations include obtaining information illegally or imparting such illegally obtained information. On the one hand, the ECtHR notes in this regard that using hidden cameras to impart information on a matter of public concern does not always violate journalistic standards, being justified by significant public interest (as is the case of disclosing insurance agents’ commercial practices in Haldimann and Others v. Switzerland, §61). On the other hand, in some situations, even the public interest does not justify the imparting of confidential information. For instance, in Stoll v. Switzerland, disseminating diplomatic documents containing a strategy for international negotiations could have done more harm, and thus maintaining confidentiality outweighed the public interest in obtaining information. A similar situation arises in the case of intercepting police officers’ conversations using special equipment (Brambilla and Others v. Italy). In such situations, journalists go beyond their professional responsibilities in violation of standards, and additional disclosure of such information may do more harm than good to society. If the police regularly commit illegal acts and it is known in advance, the use of wiretaps or other journalistic means might be justified but constant wiretapping to “find something” will not meet this goal. For instance, in the Ukrainian context, disseminating information about the movement of military equipment or combat units is sure to cause significant damage to national security, although the topic of countering the Russian Federation’s armed aggression is a matter of public concern per se. Therefore, such publications indicate the media’s desire to abuse the sensationalism of the topic, rather than act in the public interest. After all, such interest includes not only the right to know but also the right to be protected from violations of national security, public order or discrimination.
Extreme care should be taken when republishing news featuring cases of calls for violence, hate speech or discrimination. In such situations, the media should inform their audience that they do not share the views of the person represented in the news story, disseminating the information only for information purposes. Newsrooms should also be wary of republishing stories abusing freedom of expression. Such stories are not protected by standards for freedom of expression, and the media may well be held to account even for republishing them. Abuse of freedom of expression occurs when fundamental rights are denied, degraded or undermined. This category includes, in particular:
●Propaganda or justification for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and terrorism. For instance, there was abuse in the case of promoting on television the terrorist operation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Roj TV A/S v. Denmark), disseminating or republishing interviews from other media, and excerpts from interviews with representatives of the Irish Republican Army and relevant organizations (Purcell and Others v. Ireland). In the latter case, restrictions were set to prevent the imparting of messages hidden in interviews to other members of terrorist organizations. However, the publication of a book by a former security officer about torture and executions he committed during the 1955-1957 war in Algeria (Orban and Others v. France) did not constitute abuse. In particular, because the negative impact on fundamental rights was much smaller (there is a historical debate and general public interest in the topic, and this book’s audience is much smaller than that of television or the Internet) than in the first two examples. Therefore, republishing passages from this book or reports about it in other media will be completely legitimate.
●Holocaust denial and similar events. For instance, denying the existence of the gas chambers or mass extermination of Jews during World War II (Garaudy v. France) was considered abuse, as it would violate the Jewish community’s rights to dignity and create an atmosphere of fear and disrespect. Such republications and approval of their content will constitute a violation. On the other hand, there was no abuse of freedom of expression in a publication that positively covered Marshal Petten, the founder of the Vichy regime in France in 1940-1944 who nevertheless omitted to write anything about his responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to death camps (Lehideux and Isorni v. France). Republishing such a story will not constitute abuse but a violation of journalistic standards since the piece is incomplete and, therefore, does not comply with the principle of objectivity. A similar case was recently reviewed by the Independent Media Council regarding the publication about Babyn Yar, which, although described some issues in the process of developing the memorial projects, failed to present the position of all of the parties involved. Therefore, republishing such information without restoring the balance would constitute a violation of journalistic standards, but not abuse of freedom of expression. If the republication contains data added to make it objective, the material will not contain any violations.
●Calls for discrimination, violence or enmity. In these cases, direct appeals to the audience regarding the dominance of non-Muslims and violence against this group (Belkacem v. Belgium), the spread of election propaganda to exclude minorities from social life (Glimmerveen and Hagenbeek v. the Netherlands), and any other explicit and deliberate calls for violence or discrimination were considered abuse. Republishing such material gives extra publicity to them, and therefore, even if the media distance themselves from the content of such publications, it can cause significant harm. However, burning a photograph of the royal family (Stern Taulats and Roura Capellera v. Spain) or distributing campaign leaflets are not considered abuse in this context, which, although discriminatory, address acute social issues and are not dangerous enough to be considered abuse (Féret v. Belgium). In these cases, the context of the statements and the availability of information that may contribute to the public debate are taken into account. It does not mean, however, that such statements are legitimate. They can still be criminally punishable but they are not considered abuses of freedom of expression. Therefore, imparting such information or republishing it from other media portals should be done with great caution, in compliance with all applicable journalistic standards and, preferably, after consultation with the media’s lawyer.
●Threat to the territorial integrity or constitutional order; promoting totalitarian ideologies. Abuse occurs in cases of disseminating propaganda materials calling for an armed uprising to help communist revolutionaries come to power (Romanov v. Ukraine). Another example is a political party’s desire to establish a social-communist system through the proletarian revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat (German Communist Party (KPD) v. Germany). Disseminating and republishing the narratives of such a party constitutes abuse because dictatorship contradicts democratic values. However, a person’s desire to be a journalist and writer after cooperating with the German authorities during the Second World War is not recognized as abuse if the person does not justify the crimes of Nazism or propagate this ideology (De Becker v. Belgium). Therefore, if someone constantly violated standards in the past but later began to act in good faith, it will not be a violation to refer to their publications. A media’s previous unlawful or unethical behavior does not place a taboo on all of its activities or render the republishing of legitimate and ethical material impossible.
Therefore, journalists should not publish material that may constitute abuse of freedom of expression unless such republication is aimed at criticizing another media outlet’s activities and condemning violations. However, republication per se aiming to inform about any such activities without providing a negative assessment and explanations can harm protected interests rather than contribute to public debate.
A similar approach should be applied to cases where the media disseminate incomplete information by simply republishing material without making additions to balance it, which will constitute a violation. For instance, in Lopes Gomes da Silva v. Portugal, the ECtHR emphasized that proof of compliance with journalistic standards was the fact that the media published their criticism of the candidate’s political views in the elections but also referred to articles by other media containing an alternative view. When material is unbalanced, publishing it may lead to the audience’s failure to have full knowledge of facts and inability to form their own opinion on socially important matters. Also, by republishing information on popular and sensational topics, the media often contribute to even greater publicity and dissemination of incomplete and/or harmful information, further distorting its content.
Finally, republishing data from unreliable, dubious or little-known sources remains a matter of concern. In Editorial Board of Pravoye Delo and Shtekel v. Ukraine, the information came from a news website. The applicants justified the lack of thorough verification of data by the fact that the online media had to adhere to journalistic standards. And while this approach in no way relieves those republishing the information of responsibility, you may be lucky with reliable media whose information will turn out to be true and complete. Contrastingly, republications from questionable news sources are much more dangerous and are likely to lead to the spread of disinformation, manipulation, and malicious propaganda. For instance, the public broadcaster Radio Television of Republika Srpska published news from the anonymous website InfoSrpska, disseminating data that fact-checkers later called biased, untrue, or misleading. In particular, a clear example was the news that veteran Samir Sadikovic was “commander of the 4th Battalion of the Bugojno Brigade of the Bosnian Army,” who, along with other “hardened Serb executioners,” was preparing for radical action. As it turned out, the 4th Battalion never even existed within that brigade. However, the story had quickly spread and debunking it proved inefficient. That is why in cases where the source looks extremely dubious, and verification is hampered by lack of time or alternative resources, the media had better refrain from republishing such material. A similar approach is used by British journalists whose Editors’ Code obligates them to check the quality of information, authors and the public interest. Otherwise, republication from other news portals cannot be considered in good faith.
3. Cross-reference: how is it done? Once you are sure that the material does not constitute abuse of freedom of expression, and its republication per se will not lead to a violation of laws or journalistic standards, the media may republish such material. However, this procedure should comply with certain requirements. These are split into technical (readers’ easy and comfortable identification of the source) and content-related (the content of material republished by the media).
A key republication rule is an obligation to respect copyright. It is important to remember that journalists can publish information under their names or pseudonyms (Fatullayev v. Azerbaijan, §94-95). Therefore, when republishing news stories by other authors, their names must be included. Also, if the material is not solely used to obtain information about an event but also contains its author’s analysis, this deserves separate mention. Citations must also be used correctly to prevent the media from being accused of plagiarism later. It is a violation to remove watermarks authenticating ownership of an image or remove other attribution information. Finally, it should be remembered that when using other people’s material, the principle of fair use1 is applied only to republications aiming to inform about or criticize such copyrighted material or if the republication is not prohibited by the author. However, copyright does not protect facts, and therefore merely republishing information about a particular event without providing the author’s analysis or subjective opinion attached to it will not constitute a violation.
In addition to the issue of copyright, one should remember the manner of referring to someone else’s material. Today, the most common way for online media to refer to material produced by other media is by providing a hyperlink and screenshot, while footnotes containing a full description of the data source are less commonly used.
Hyperlinks are not considered to be information republished in full but are rather an invitation to the reader to read the full piece posted on another website (Magyar Jeti Zrt v. Hungary, §74). However, if the citation from the story is short and might not contain violations per se even if the full, hyperlinked piece does, republishing the hyperlink may constitute a violation in certain circumstances. In Magyar Jeti Zrt v. Hungary we mentioned earlier, prosecution for the hyperlink posted on YouTube that turned out to be a defamatory interview violated Article 10 of the European Convention, and therefore the media was wrongfully prosecuted for publishing the hyperlink. However, the court developed criteria to determine whether publishing and adding hyperlinks could constitute a violation and call the media to account in other cases. Therefore, to assess media outlets’ degree of responsibility for publishing hyperlinks to potentially problematic material, it is necessary to take into account the following criteria:
whether the journalist supported the contested material (material in the hyperlink/link);
whether the journalist repeated the contested material (without approving of it);
whether the journalist simply attached a hyperlink to the contested material (without approving of or repeating its content);
whether the journalist knew or could reasonably be expected to have known that the contested material was defamatory or otherwise unlawful;
whether the journalist worked in good faith; whether she/he respected the ethics and standards of responsible journalism.
Therefore, if a citation is potentially defamatory or if there is any doubt whether the information is completely legitimate, the journalist should specify that the media does not share these particular views and only cites an expert, the original source or any other person (Thoma v. Luxembourg, §64; Brunet-Lecomte and Others v. France, §47). If you add a hyperlink and fail to do so, liabilities might arise.
Yet another problem with hyperlinks is that one might use the wrong link. For instance, in a study of Vinnytsia websites, the IMI noted that hyperlinks often redirected to news portals’ homepage, rather than to the page where the material in question is posted. Such references, especially when using citations, cannot be considered to be good faith.
Things are a bit more complicated with screenshots. If they capture information from other media’s pages on Facebook or Telegram channels, one should keep in mind the possibility of correcting data or deleting posts. Then, usual screenshots will not be confirmed. To protect themselves from possible accusations and also offer readers more reliable information, the media can take screenshots using Internet Archive or Google Global Cache services that record webpage content offline. In essence, it is evidence of the pages’ content at a given moment. Furthermore, one should not refer to anonymous channels on social networks because it is almost impossible to verify the identity of authors or the reliability of the information in question.
In addition to how to make references, the procedure for selecting sources and preparing material based on data from other media outlets is important. One of the main rules here is not to repeat violations. For instance, if a media publishes an article from another website to criticize its false, manipulative or disinformation content, harmful narratives should not be repeated. Truthful information should be imparted immediately so that the news does not contain double accents and the readers’ attention is not split between two contradictory ideas. Thus, during the Texas election, voters were falsely told they had two days to vote, not one. This would have had a significant impact on the distribution of votes (Democratic supporters being the primary goal). There were hundreds of such examples of spreading false information about the election day in the United States. However, the most important thing here is the mode of conduct of election commissions. They reported on their website about the fake news stories concerning the election day without disclosing their content and only providing the correct date for the citizens to come to the polls. Therefore, the readers did not remember the false message about the two dates but automatically focused on the correct date. The media should use a similar approach to debunk false reports: one can provide a hyperlink to the website hosting them without repeating their content (this rule will mostly apply to short news reports, not large analytical material).
Another important rule is to verify the sources referred to by the media. Even if the information comes from another media, which, in principle, must hew to the standards of journalism. The ECtHR specifically notes that the requirement to act in good faith and provide “reliable and precise” information applies to all cases where the media produce publications regardless of the source of information (Axel Springer AG v. Germany, §93; Fressoz and Roire v. France, §54; Stoll v. Switzerland, §103; Kasabova v. Bulgaria, §61, 63—68). To do so, the media should study a particular topic as thoroughly as possible or at least sufficiently to provide information that comprehensively describes the issue being covered. That is why references to one information source can be justified only in cases where it is the only source available to journalists. In other situations, one should look for additional sources. Also, discovered sources should be fact-checked for manipulation or distortion of information (especially when they are not the original source themselves). This rule should not put an excessive burden of fact-checking each word on the media, but it should include the verification of key messages and their clear imparting in the republished material (Kącki v. Poland, §52). Sources of visual content also require verification. This is especially true in light of deepfakes. Therefore, the media must act in good faith and adhere to the principles of responsible journalism.
The Independent Media Council recommends that:
(when analyzing official documents) references be made to their originals and not to other media referring to official publications containing the text in question;
references be made, whenever possible and appropriate, to primary sources of information (officials’ statements, official announcements, etc.) and not to their analysis by other news portals;
reliability and authenticity of the information from other media outlets be analyzed even when republishing news stories from trusted media outlets usually adhering to journalistic standards;
anonymous sources be treated with caution both in other media and per se; additional confirmation of such information be sought whenever possible;
information from social media be treated with caution including other media outlets’ pages in social networks or acquired by other media outlets from such sources. Whenever possible, such pages’ content should be videoed, and screenshots made using special apps. The account holders should be authenticated to verify the information;
material not be republished that was disseminated by other media outlets with procedural or content violations (particularly sensitive information on the topics that have an impact on the privacy or national security, content containing signs of hate speech or incitement to violence, or false and/or harmful information, etc.);
other media companies’ publications not be referred to that do not contain editorial information (e.g. fail to include information about the persons responsible for website content: editors, contact persons, etc.); links be verified that contain references to profiles in social networks;
other media companies’ publications not be republished that constitute abuse of freedom of expression;
copyright laws be followed when republishing information from other media (in particular, authors’ names should be mentioned and the principle of fair usage adhered to, etc.);
other media companies’ publications should be referred to correctly by referring to the page containing the material in question and not to the media companies’ homepage;
the media distance themselves from the content of the material if there are doubts as to content’s appropriateness and/or ethics (in particular, if the content may constitute defamation, disinformation, etc.);
(when using a screenshot for reference) reliable screenshots be made using special apps that can distinctly record the website content at a particular moment;
violations contained in other media companies’ publications not be repeated mechanically when criticizing such publications or condemning certain behavior;
topics be researched as thoroughly as possible, or at least sufficiently; (whenever possible) references be made to several sources that are not interdependent or referring to one another, whose reliability and bona fides have been verified.
1 Fair use is the legal principle that copyrighted material may, under certain conditions, be used without the permission of owners of those rights.