Yesterday afternoon, the ABC published a piece alleging a former Sri Lankan military officer was now acting operations manager at the Manus Island detention centre — a concern for advocates given the number of Tamil asylum seekers being held there.
The scoop was brought to the ABC by Asher Wolf, a freelance journalist who says she trawled through government documents and did the legwork in verifying the information for the ABC (a claim backed by the ABC journalist who wrote the piece, Jeff Waters — he tweeted yesterday that “Asher did the legwork”). Wolf found the number for the former military officer and Waters made the call to verify, Waters tweeted.
However, when the story was first posted online, it bore only one byline: Waters’.
The saga illuminates the tricky matter of breaking news through freelancers. Editors are understandably reluctant to publish new information from people they don’t know well, and so will usually assign an in-house journalist to verify the story, and to rewrite it to in-house standards. This can obscure who uncovered the story in the first place and lead to allegations of freelancers not getting due credit.
Wolf told Crikey (and her vast Twitter following) that getting a byline was a condition of her taking the piece to the ABC after she took it to other outlets first (Waters, who declined to comment to Crikey, disputed this on Twitter).
“I came to Jeff on Sunday. He promised me a byline — he said it was my work. I wasn’t a source, it wasn’t a tip-off — it was my work as a journalist. And I was thrilled to be published at the ABC,” Wolf said.
Wolf says she was the one who wanted Waters to share the byline with her. “I haven’t done a journalism cadetship — I’m self-taught,” she said. “I wanted the piece to have strength, and the name of a respectable journalist on it.”
Wolf wasn’t paid for her contribution to the piece, and told Crikey that while she would have loved payment, it wasn’t her biggest concern. “My biggest concern was getting my name on the story, so I could build a portfolio for myself as a journalist and not just as an opinion columnist,” she said.
Wolf’s contribution to the story is not disputed by the ABC, and was acknowledged on PM when presenter Mark Colvin aired the story. However, in the online version, Wolf was credited in the body of the piece as an “information activist” who bought the story to the ABC’s attention, and not as a contributing journalist.
The ABC maintains Wolf was merely a source. In a written statement provided to Crikey, the ABC’s head of editorial policy Alan Sunderland says ABC News management have made no arrangements for Wolf to report for the ABC.
“The ABC reporter who filed the story made it clear it was based on information provided by Asher Wolf, and the ABC believes it was appropriate for that to be acknowledged in the report. ABC News management was advised that no offer of a by-line had been made, and in any event it would not be appropriate to provide a by-line to someone who is not reporting for us.”
Waters tweeted that he vowed to “do his best” to get Wolf a byline, but made no promise to do so.
Asked how freelancers should approach the ABC if they want their scoop to be acknowledged, Sunderland wrote they need to approach ABC management and agree on terms. “Any agreement made is always honoured,” he said.
Wolf was the reporter who broke the story of the Immigration Department’s data leak last week (for which Guardian Australia gave her a joint byline with two of its own journalists). But she says that kind of response to a scoop is the exception. “Unless you have a sword hanging over the publisher’s head, when it comes to breaking news, they’ll rip your story and run,” she said.