The reporter’s notebook

January 16, 2010

So your editor has given you an assignment to write about manga and/or anime, but you don’t really know very much about either. It’s never fun to be told to sound informed about something that may be completely new to you, but you decided to be a journalist at some point, and that’s pretty much going to be your job until you inevitably slide into public relations after all of the newspapers close. (They should have mentioned that in your orientation class or during one of your advising sessions, but you can probably understand why they didn’t. Sorry!)

There are lots of ways this assignment can go wrong, but there’s one that can really make you look dumb for a number of reasons. In your desire to inform people, it may occur to you to point people towards examples of manga and anime. That’s a good impulse, and it demonstrates a willingness to embrace the hyperlink as an informative tool, and all journalists will need to figure that out sooner or later after all of the newspapers and magazines become web-based instead of printed. (I bet your college offered a new media course, and I bet you took it, because you could surf the web for credit instead of just texting quietly under your desk in the lecture hall. Learning is great!)

But here’s a tip: don’t rely on the top search results for a title you’re writing about, because they’ll almost always point you to pirated versions of the property in question. I’ve seen this happen a few times in the last month via links that showed up in news alerts based on common search terms, and it’s been evident in those cases that the writer in question had no idea that there was a distinction between a pirated comic online and a licensed, published work. And in fairness, none of those sites are going to rush to tell the casual visitor that the site has no right to publish and/or broadcast the manga and/or anime, because then they’d be admitting they were stealing stuff. Now, you may not immediately see a problem with this, but I’m sure someone in your organization (possibly the publisher or, if it’s large enough, the general counsel) can probably tell you all about the ethical conundrum of driving traffic to an enterprise predicated on the violation of copyright and the theft of intellectual property. (Isn’t it great that the senior media ethics seminar is just an elective now? I heard those classes are hard! Daniella [All About Comics] Orihuela-Gruber assures me that all of her college journalism courses included a significant ethics component. Snark withdrawn.)

I’ll do a quick test by typing in the name of a very popular manga series into a search engine to see what comes up. The top link is Wikipedia, and your superiors probably don’t like it when you use that as a source. (I’m a blogger, so I can link to whatever I like!) The second link is a for-profit piracy site. It’s not until the third link that you get to someone who actually has a right to publish the comic, which you can tell from the fact that the first word in the link description is “Official,” which admittedly doesn’t immediately promise hours of fun, but it has that comforting sheen of legality. The next link is for an informational site, and the one after that is for a pirated version of the anime. Then there are two more links for pirated versions of the manga. It’s a mine field, isn’t it?

So what’s the quickest way to make sure that you’re writing about the versions that actually allow the creators to receive a portion of the profits? My advice would be to skip the search engines or at least to hold off on them until after you’ve done a search at a legitimate online retailer like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Right Stuf. All of these vendors list a publisher for every product, and then you can search for that publisher and link to the property description on their site. Some publishers share previews of many of their titles, though possibly not the specific title that you’re writing about. Some publishers even share big chunks of series online either for free or for small fees per chapter. There are also some legitimate online anime distributors that make a lot of preview content available for free.

Here’s the thing: if you can’t tell the difference between a legal version of a product and a pirated version, your editors certainly can’t. Your webmasters might be able to, but they’re overworked and cynical and people treat them badly. (Your editor is just cynical.) So it’s ultimately up to you to try and find out if you’re driving traffic to a web site that’s stealing stuff. Your best bet is to see who’s legitimately distributing the product you’re writing about and to pick your links accordingly. It isn’t as hard as it sounds, and you won’t look dumb.

And just as a quick addendum, if the online platform for your writing offers visitors the opportunity to comment on your articles, you should check those comments regularly. Sometimes people show up and mention that you’re driving traffic to a piracy site, and when you neglect to reply or modify your article, you look even dumber or indifferent to legitimate concerns about the outcome of your article.