On September 15, 2012, a story appeared in the British Daily Mail online under the titillating headline “Meet the Israeli female super-spies who FLIRT their way into deciphering enemy secrets.” The story, just over 400 words long, detailed the lives of women agents who work for the Mossad, Israel’s famous and notorious foreign intelligence agency. The article quoted women agents on how they live lives straight out of spy movies, and on the limits of using their femininity to gain an advantage. Given these quotes, a reader might have puzzled over the byline of the article, an anonymous “Daily Mail Reporter.”“With the expansion of digital infrastructures for reporting and consuming news, journalistic publics play a key role in adapting stories for larger transnational publics.”
As a way to think about sourcing and citational practices in contemporary online journalism, and about how a story can spread across the current digital news ecology, I discuss how “Daily Mail Reporter” got these quotes, and spawned more versions of the story. If we are interested in how audiences come to trust the stories disseminated in news media—and thus form publics involved in political mobilizations1On publics see among others, Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49–90, and Francis P. Cody, “Publics and Politics,” Annual Review of Anthropology 40 (2011): 37–52.—one unexplored practice is to see how journalists themselves use other journalists as sources, and in particular how they cite each other. Journalists form expert publics around the practices of “news talk,” which includes citing each other.2On the practices of producing news talk, see Colleen Cotter, News Talk: Investigating the Language of Journalism (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). On expertise in online journalism, see Dominic Boyer, The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). With the expansion of digital infrastructures for reporting and consuming news, journalistic publics play a key role in adapting stories for larger transnational publics.
The Daily Mail article as formatted had two major sources to quote the Mossad agents, one referenced in its text and one with a hyperlink only found at the end. In the text, the quotes are attributed to a Hebrew-language article in Lady, a weekly magazine supplement found in the Israeli financial daily, Globes. Did the intrepid “Daily Mail Reporter” read the Hebrew interview? No. This becomes clear when, at the end of the article the second source is given, a hyperlink to “Read More” in an article that had appeared online a day prior in the Daily Mail’s smaller competitor, the Independent. The earlier article, with the headline “‘We’d do anything for Israel, but we don’t do that,’ say Mossad’s female secret weapons,” was written by a veteran Jerusalem correspondent, Matthew Kalman. The Daily Mail article was simply a copied and reworked version of Kalman’s. It was Kalman who had found the lengthy—and rare—4,500 word Hebrew interview with women agents in Lady, as well as a separate interview with the director of the Mossad, and then had translated portions for his short version in English for the Independent.“Here, I consider how authenticity and authentication function in practices of disseminating a news story.”
This essay is not about the plagiarism done by “Daily Mail Reporter” of Kalman’s piece. Rather, it deals with the complicated ways that journalistic sourcing and storytelling work today, focusing on how Kalman and the “Daily Mail Reporter” started a chain of versions of the story across a variety of regional news domains. It shows how a version of a story—or parts of it—can be recycled and reanimated by other journalists.3On recycling and reanimating texts, or parts of texts, see Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, eds., Natural Histories of Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and Debra Anne Spitulnik, “The Social Circulation of Media Discourse and the Mediation of Communities,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 6, no. 2 (1996): 161–87. Here, I consider how authenticity and authentication function in practices of disseminating a news story. The authenticity described is not one of the performance of the self, but rather of a journalist, like Kalman, who has the expert ability to produce a story authentically in English from the Israeli public sphere such that it can circulate abroad with a sign of its provenance—similar to regional commodities described by Jillian Cavanaugh and Shalini Shankar.4On this conception of authenticity, see especially Jillian R. Cavanaugh and Shalini Shankar, “Producing Authenticity in Global Capitalism: Language, Materiality, and Value,” American Anthropologist 116, no. 1 (2014): 51–64. Further, that journalistic authenticity converges with the signs of authentication like bylines and datelines—or even a hyperlink—which, as Rebecca Jean Emigh argues, have historically developed with the long distance circulation of news.5Rebecca Jean Emigh, “A Historical Sociology of the Authentication of News,” Items, August 10, 2021. Finally, the essay describes the work of an interdisciplinary team of scholars and librarians to design and build a tool that can help analyze examples of how such journalistic authentication works in an online environment.
Tracing the online sources of a contemporary news story
While the story of women Mossad agents first published in Lady plays into a variety of well-established and highly stereotyping storylines about the mystique of spies—especially women—and of the Mossad, what is interesting is how this example allows us to trace the online life of a story that starts in a national language for a national public (in this case, for a Hebrew-speaking Israeli audience) and then turns into a story with an international reach for English-speaking audiences. Equally interesting are the techniques used by online news outlets to authenticate their sources, even when they do little more than loosely paraphrase or summarize an existing article from elsewhere.
I heard about this case when I interviewed Matthew Kalman in 2017. Kalman used his English translation of the Mossad women story as an example of how a savvy Israel-based correspondent can leverage their knowledge of a local news scene. In essence, Kalman claimed authenticity as what Ulf Hannerz calls “long-timer” in Jerusalem in contrast to other correspondents or “spiralists.”6Ulf Hannerz, “Correspondents’ Careers,” in Foreign News: Exploring the World of Foreign Correspondents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Spiralists, according to Hannerz, are correspondents who stay in their posts a limited amount of time before moving on to the next stop, and in a classic form of cosmopolitanism, take their most important contacts and knowledge with them. As an important city for constant hard news, long-timers in Jerusalem on the other hand have strong local contacts and generally speak Hebrew, “and so they are immersed in the daily flow of Israeli comment and debate.”7Hannerz, Foreign News, 87. What is interesting is that for journalistic practice today, aspects of the spiralist work can now be performed by an online journalist who does not leave home, just as “Daily Mail Reporter” did. As a result, I would suggest, a citational method like the technology of hyperlink becomes the marker to authenticate the knowledge passed on.“The moment a correspondent depends on translators, according to Kalman, someone else is editing their news.”
In the interview with me, Kalman’s description of his reporting techniques amounted to a claim to the journalistic authenticity of a long timer, immersed in Israel’s news environment. Kalman explained to me that many Jerusalem correspondents lack knowledge of Hebrew, which forces them to depend on a service that translates the Israeli press to English. The moment a correspondent depends on translators, according to Kalman, someone else is editing their news. This linguistic barrier is not the only one preventing an authentic link to the Israeli public sphere. Kalman also explained several strategies he used to find stories from the Israeli public sphere, like reading Hebrew newspapers, or making a deal with a news vendor to get a weekly supplement magazine early. Kalman credited his finding the Lady interview to these strategies. For Kalman, the fact that he found and translated the Lady story before anyone else is a testament to his immersion in the Israeli public sphere—a journalist aware of the practices by which news travels in Israel, and thus able to successfully produce a version of a story for English-language readers. For Kalman, his expertise enables him to produce a news commodity authentic to its region of production.
Amplification of a story through hyperlinks
If Kalman’s expertise is how the Mossad agent story began circulating in English, another form of authentication was required to maintain the relation to the moment when Kalman first translated it. Here is where the anonymous “Daily Mail Reporter” comes in: the “Read More” hyperlink stands in for Kalman’s immersion in the Israeli public sphere. At the same time, the hyperlink attenuates the need for Kalman’s expertise to produce an authentic version of Israeli news, as the next journalist to reproduce the story does not require similar abilities. The journalists who ended up recycling the Daily Mail’s version in essence rely on that authenticating hyperlink.
What is the impact of a story with a hyperlink like that used by “Daily Mail Reporter”? Most immediately, the Daily Mail amplified the Mossad women story at a time when its online readership was competing with the New York Times for largest number of monthly unique visitors for an online newspaper, almost 45 million. Certainly, its readership dwarfed that of the Independent (where Kalman published), which in June 2012 was under 13 million.“The Daily Mail’s greater readership might explain the number of versions of the story about female Mossad agents published in other outlets soon after.”
The Daily Mail’s greater readership might explain the number of versions of the story about female Mossad agents published in other outlets soon after. I will begin with two articles that clearly started from Kalman’s or the Daily Mail’s versions, and then added a few more details from the Hebrew Lady. About 12 hours after the Daily Mail’s version, a version of the story appeared in the English-language Times of Israel. The Times of Israel author includes a hyperlink to and also mentions the Hebrew Lady interviews as the source, and adds a few details not in Kalman’s version, but the quotes are identical. About the same time, Russia Today published an English-language version that mentions (without a hyperlink) the Lady interview and adds different details. Yet, this Russia Today article also includes many of the same quotes as Kalman’s version. Kalman’s version became the template of the English-language story, which either directly or via the Daily Mail managed to get the attention of Hebrew-speaking reporters at Times of Israel and Russia Today. These reporters probably copy and pasted Kalman’s quotes into their text, before adding a few other details from Lady. Having read the Hebrew, they then omit the citations or hyperlinks to Kalman’s article or the Daily Mail.
There was another case in the same vein. A Forbes article started a story about why women can be better spies with one of the quotes from the then-director of the Mossad. This article, published two weeks after Kalman’s, also did not hyperlink or mention his story (or Daily Mail), but did include a hyperlink to and mention the Lady article. That is, the article presents itself as having taken the quote directly from Lady and yet the wording of the quote is exactly the same as Kalman’s.
In these three cases, authenticity of the story produced was maintained through the direct citation of Lady. The journalists who “wrote” these versions suggest through their strategy that they also can access the Israeli public sphere by citing the Hebrew Lady, replacing the need for the authenticating hyperlink to Kalman’s piece.
In contrast, there is another set of versions that depend entirely on the Daily Mail and its authentication via hyperlink. First, two versions appeared the day after the Daily Mail story in the India-based the Indian Express and Business Standard, and they are almost word for word duplicates of the Daily Mail version, including the quotes to the women agents and the mention of Lady (indeed, they are almost identical to one another and were published within minutes of each other). They both source their story with a single “the Daily Mail reported” and do not use a hyperlink.
There is a final set of versions of the Mossad agent story, which involve very little journalistic agency: directly reprinting the whole thing. The Forbes version was reposted a week later on a British news site chiefly focused on sports journalism. The Times of Israel version—including the hyperlink to Lady—was republished on a Bangladeshi news sites, run by a well-known gadfly, six years later.
Much momentum was generated by Kalman’s translation and the Daily Mail’s amplification via hyperlink. Much work, that is, was done when the Daily Mail transformed Kalman’s immersion in the Israeli public sphere into the authentication by hyperlink in the article by the “Daily Mail Reporter.” And potentially other versions and stories beyond these as well.
Studying authenticating citations in contemporary online journalism“Hyperlinks, quotes, phrases like “according to the Daily Mail,” wholesale copy-paste—these citation practices together instantiate a complex epistemic structure for news and information in today’s journalistic news-scape.”
A broader issue is brought up by this case however: How do we study this kind of authentication at a larger scale in contemporary journalism? This question is particularly important given the combination of citation practices utilized to create this specific set of articles. Hyperlinks, quotes, phrases like “according to the Daily Mail,” wholesale copy-paste—these citation practices together instantiate a complex epistemic structure for news and information in today’s journalistic news-scape. They enable the located authenticity of journalists like Kalman to be transformed into markers of authentication.
To study such citation practices, close hermeneutic readings are important, like the one that I began above with the circuit for the Lady story. However, I do not believe this is enough. It is possible to also do a quantitative study of such practices, and get a stronger sense of how journalists use and rely on each other’s reporting to generate their stories and contribute to public debate and political organizing.
For such a quantitative study, I have been collaborating since 2015 with researchers at my university to put together an open-source tool that can crawl designated web domains and Twitter accounts in search of such authenticating citation practices. Currently called MediaCAT, this tool allows a researcher to input a list of news web domains and Twitter accounts (complete with tags that are relevant to a researcher), and then it will crawl this list and find where news stories or tweets cite a different news organization within the scope. These citations can be either embedded hyperlinks or else the use of a text alias for the sourced news organization (e.g., as in the phrase “Daily Mail reports” without hyperlink). In the case of Twitter, it can also find explicit @mentions. For any citations within scope, MediaCAT extracts as best as possible the metadata: article or tweet text, author, article title, and all hyperlinks. It also follows up on any in-scope hyperlinks. It then stores the citing and cited articles or tweets in a structured database that can be downloaded for visualizations. Although bugs remain, we are hopeful to have our first results by Spring 2022.
The idea behind MediaCAT then is to have a research tool that generates a corpus based on the citation practices used in contemporary journalism, and that will allow the visualization of the structured epistemics that underlies current reporting. MediaCAT can thus help illuminate the reporting that is most trusted, and considered most authentic, in practice by major expert publics—journalists themselves.
Banner photo: Obi Onyeador/Unsplash.