If you watch much TV or read many magazines, the names Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson will probably be familiar to you. And if you’re especially up to date on current events, you’ll also know that all three of these distinguished and respected authorities are currently suffering reputation crises, because they published articles that contained everything from brazen plagiarism to outright falsehoods.
(For details on Lehrer’s resignation from the New Yorker, Zakaria’s suspension and subsequent reinstatement by CNN and Time, and Ferguson’s current Newsweek-related firestorm, click the appropriate links.)
While all three of these high-profile personalities are taking serious hits to their reputations, the greater damage done might well be to the media and publishing enterprises for which they wrote and to the journalism profession in general. People have been arguing for years about whether various media sources are “biased” — but at least there was a baseline assumption that the media wasn’t just making stuff up. This assumption is no longer safe, and everyone is the poorer for it.
So — what does this have to do with you, the content-marketing lawyer? It’s a reminder of the critical importance of fact-checking and the enormous damage you could do to your reputation by producing inaccurate or insufficiently credited material.
It probably goes without saying that your professional reputation is everything to you, both among your colleagues and to your clients. Indeed, the main reason you’re publishing, blogging or tweeting in the first place is because you want to burnish and leverage your reputation for business development purposes. So you need to be very careful about what you actually produce.
Unless you have extraordinarily poor character and ethical sensibilities, I don’t think I need to advise you against simply fabricating content. But you need to be careful about exaggerations: overstating what a case means or what a lawyer said, overemphasizing a warning or a guideline for dramatic effect, that sort of thing. If you get called out by a commenter or another blogger for exaggeration, it will make readers doubt the veracity of everything else you’ve said. The sexy headline or sound bite just isn’t worth the gamble.
A more realistic concern, and an even greater risk, is accidental or reckless plagiarism. The Internet, by its nature, encourages the redistribution of information and insights: not having to reinvent the wheel is a built-in advantage. Virtually every lawyer who writes a blog reads other blogs and other media sources and is influenced by them.
But the price of this universal access to other people’s wisdom is the link: if you’ve learned something from someone else on the web that inspires or heavily influences what you’re saying, you must credit that source, preferably with a hyperlink. What the footnote and bibliography were to older publishing media, the link is today. Show your work; list your sources.
The risk law bloggers can run is that — for reasons ranging from a shortage of time to uncertainty about a source to an ego-driven reluctance to share the spotlight — they fail to provide proper credit for ideas or (especially) words that came from somewhere else. Plagiarism is both extremely easy to spot and extremely unpopular at the moment, and forgiveness for this particular sin is very hard to come by. Combine that with the astonishing speed and blast radius of indignation in the online environment, and you quickly realize how much trouble a single uncredited observation can create for you, worldwide, in a matter of minutes.
There are several positive aspects of linking, of course: it delivers huge networking benefits, it provides SEO advantages for both you and your linkee, and it portrays you as a generous soul happy to spread the credit for your insights. It’s also, of course, simple good manners. But at a time when even professional journalists and respected authorities are coming under the microscope for whether they’ve conducted themselves properly as content publishers, it’s also good risk management.
When in doubt, link. Err on the side of giving credit. Don’t learn the hard way that online karma can be swift and devastating.