So, last week I ended up breaking (though, as we’ll see, maybe that’s the wrong word) a story over on Hit and Run that required me to make a judgement call about when I had enough corroboration for a charge to responsibly repeat it. Through the miracle of IM, I soon had what I thought was a critical mass of sources, and ended up running with the story.
What I eventually started wondering, though was whether I’d been the first to “publish” the charge. Because it turns out that over a week earlier, someone had made the same charge in a LiveJournal comment, and the LJ author had posted a separate note on it the next day. So did that person really “break” the story? Does it matter what that LJ’s audience is? A few dozen? A few hundred? What if it’d gone around on a listserv or via a blast email? We don’t normally think of that as publication; that’s a private communication. But email’s not like a traditional phone conversation: I can send something all at once to more people than are likely to be reading, say, a local newspaper… or at any rate, a page 8 story in that paper. There isn’t a bright line even from post to post on a particular blog. I might maintain a LiveJournal that, for the most part, is just read by a dozen close friends, and so in a sense is more like a private letter being sent around. But all it takes is for, say, Glenn Reynolds’ interest to be piqued to throw ten thousand eyeballs at it.
Obviously, that doesn’t really matter in this instance—I’d be responsible for checking the story out whether I was the first to run with it or not. But it does seem to be the case that people feel less obligated to vett information themselves when it’s already been “published” somewhere else—you can always make the story “Publication X is reporting that…” I’m just not sure what “already been published” means now.