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I understand that this question may be nuanced, so I'd like to provide a personal example which led me to asking here in the first place.

For context, I am currently doing my Bachelor's in IT. Some lecturers in my university heavily prefer academic journal sources for their assignments. On one occasion, I included this reference link to a news story as an example for how AI generated content may be viewed/handled in the future based on the court ruling in the case.

Upon review, my lecturer requested that I substitute the reference for what is essentially the same story, but published in a journal. I complied by citing a journal article (which referenced the same news article), and my lecturer surprisingly accepted the paper. This paper was then published in a conference hosted by my small local university on my lecturer's recommendation as practice/to gain experience.

Needless to say, I am very confused, considering I've seen published journals cite news articles directly. Additionally, all I've done is cite a secondary source, which I've read is not "best practice". A few related questions:

  • Does the fact of the news article being published in a journal make it more reputable somehow?
  • Is there some educational value to be gained from my lecturers' decisions which I'm not seeing here? Or are my lecturers overgeneralizing: (i.e. journal = good, blogposts = bad)
  • Should I just avoid citing news articles and omit points in my papers until they're published in a "reputable" source?

I would greatly appreciate if anyone could shed some light on this scenario. Thank you in advance!

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  • You publishing a cite to their work makes their work more relevant. Googling a news article doesn't 'wash the other hand'. If somebody already said what you said, why say it again, other than for the "experience" of how to perpetuate your own industry.
    – Mazura
    Feb 18 at 1:47
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    @Mazura "If somebody already said what you said, why say it again?" Because it is useful or necessary information for the reader. We are talking about one fact, not reproducing a whole article.
    – toby544
    Feb 18 at 9:38

6 Answers 6

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The news story you cited is clearly reputable. It begins:

Images in a graphic novel that were created using the artificial-intelligence system Midjourney should not have been granted copyright protection, the U.S. Copyright Office said in a letter seen by Reuters.

So I agree with everything you have said. Citing just the journal article would be worse. However, news stories sometimes disappear from the internet, so you should probably cite both.

It would be even better to read the original letter from the Copyright Office (the news story has a link) and cite that. The letter is not a court ruling, so be careful how you describe it.

Answers to your questions:

  • In this case, no. In other cases, it depends on the quality of the news story and the journal article. Journal articles can have mistakes too.
  • There might be a bit of educational value. Perhaps some other readers would share your lecturer's opinion, and your lecturer is trying to help you avoid that problem. But in this case I don't agree with your lecturer. This was a serious news story from a reputable agency, not a blogpost from an anonymous author.
  • No, but try to use the most authoritative and reputable sources you can. However, as you are still a student, you probably need to just do whatever your lecturers demand, so perhaps the answer is yes.
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  • 15
    When citing something that's been published online, a customary thing to do is to indicate both the publication date and the "retrieved" date, ie the date at which the author has read it (in case it is edited in the future). Another thing you can do is tag the page to be archived by the wayback machine at the date that you cite it.
    – Stef
    Feb 18 at 10:04
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It's not that news sources are not reputable. The issue is that news articles are typically secondary sources (when they are reporting on another document or source of knowledge). Journal articles are typically primary sources (when they are the source of new knowledge). In academic writing, we always prioritize primary sources. In tech and science, newspapers are almost always secondary sources unless the news article themselves commissioned their own scientific poll (but even then they usually have another publication for the science poll).

In your example, the court's letter should have been cited, not a news story about the court's letter.

If you are doing a meta-analysis of how news stories cover a topic, then you can cite the story as your primary evidence.

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  • 4
    Could make this even stronger: "...not a news story about the court decision, and also not a journal referencing the news story about the court decision."
    – Graipher
    Feb 18 at 16:38
  • 9
    Yes, it is best to cite the primary source. The first paragraph of this answer is sometimes true and sometimes not. A news story about a big protest march would be a primary source. Journal articles are sometimes primary sources but sometimes they cite a source, which cites a source, which cites a source, which ...
    – toby544
    Feb 18 at 18:12
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    I would add that news articles have an entirely different view of what it means to be a source of something than academics are. For journalists, once the author of an article has read something presented as factual (say, in another newspaper), it's as if they magically become the source and can just repeat it as if they learned it first hand. That often means it's impossible to trace where the information originated, all you know is that the person who wrote the article thought it was true. When an academic review article acts as a secondary source, it will at least cite the primary sources.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 18 at 20:49
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    @BryanKrause Sometimes it works like that, but not always. In high quality newspapers journalists often mention that another newspaper or news agency is the source of a claim. And here is an entertaining article about academic articles that failed to use primary sources: doi.org/10.1177/0306312714535679
    – toby544
    Feb 19 at 8:42
  • 2
    @Ray there shouldn't be a single "thing you actually read". Read multiple sources covering the same thing before deciding whch ones to cite. Feb 20 at 16:29
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As you suspected, the answer is: it depends. A simplified answer is that a news article can be cited if the point you are making is "this is what is being discussed in the media". It cannot be cited for "this is a fact", because what is a fact by journalistic standards is not a fact by scientific standards.

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  • 4
    This is good advice in some cases, but in this case the news article is factual and the journal article just cited it. The news article is actually more likely to be accurate.
    – toby544
    Feb 17 at 13:28
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It is indeed a nuanced issue. Journalism has another aim than scientific papers. Journalism is good at picking up current societal debate, ongoing trends, recent rulings etc., but does not generally analyse a topic using the best available theory and/or methods. Hence its use in a thesis (or other academic work) should be considered with the utmost care.

In my experience news items are useful to set the context of your work which you will mainly find in the first few paragraphs of the work (page 1 of the introduction). Sometimes they can be used to reflect on the outcomes towards societal relevance (in the closing section).

Media items can also be used in a (formal) media analysis where you used them as primary data points - but that would require a solid protocol for identifying and coding the items. I am pretty sure that is not what you mean.

Following this to answer your questions:

Does the fact of the news article being published in a journal make it more reputable somehow?

  • Reference in scientific journal. Not per se. If anything, infamous news outlets may receive relatively more attention - e.g. in communication science journals trying to understand things like "alternative facts" than reputable sources like Reuters.

Is there some educational value to be gained from my lecturers' decisions which I'm not seeing here? Or are my lecturers overgeneralizing: (i.e. journal = good, blogposts = bad)

  • Scientific journals require some structure and have some quality control. Newspapers (reputable ones) also have quality control but have a different purpose; so already should be used in different ways. Blogposts have no quality control which means all information in those should be treated as speculative and hence cannot be used as solid foundation for academic work. They might serve as illustration but not much more.
  • More directly towards your question. I generally recommend my BSc students to stay away from news items as finding the right use of such items requires a level of academic experience that many undergrads do not have. I am more open for MSc or PhD students to use news sources if they can sufficiently justify it. So I would support the educational message that it takes advanced skills to use media source correctly, and if you do not have attained those yet, stay away from them.

Should I just avoid citing news articles and omit points in my papers until they're published in a "reputable" source?

  • Depends of the purpose. See my argument above. News articles can be used to indicate societal trends etc. But they do not provide the in depth analysis that are expected of scientific journals. Hence as sources to contextualise your research they can be useful, but to build any academic reasoning they are generally not suited.
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There is another reason to perhaps prefer a journal to a news story that appears only on a website: Websites can change, printed journals cannot. While it is true that most journals are now purely online, if you provide a particular an author, data, volume and page/article identifier or doi, it is still the case that someone accessing that will almost certainly be accessing the same document that you accessed.

However, if you just provide a web URL, there is no guarantee that the content at that URL will not change over time, of even continue to function at all. This is often why we add (Accessed on ......) to citations to websites. But that doesn't really help the reader see the original document if it has changed by the time they come to it.

For this reason, if you must cite a news media source, it is better to cite an actual printed news paper (which at least in theory can probably be consulted in an archive) than a website.

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As always, it depends, but for me, if a news story refers to a study, unless your paper refers to the "newsy" aspects not described in the original study, or the study is unpublished for some reason (a status which conveys its own red flags), the better part of valor is to find the original publication, read it, and cite it.

When reading about science in the news, more likely than not the news article will be heavily reliant on some news release generated by the press office of the school the study comes out of. Naturally enough, such news releases are designed to make the lab and the school look more favorable. They might make the study seem more important than it really is.

An exception, of course, may lie in the newsier sections of publications like Nature and Science.

Yeah, published journal articles will always have some "slant", too, but at least it's slant that could make it through peer review.

All that said, we provide citations so that readers can look at them, and then determine how reliable they may or may not be.

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