November 04, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

For a writer, a proper attribution is everything. There are few things more irritating than to see something you have spent hours putting together attributed to someone else. I'm not referring to plagiarism, however. That's blatant and illegal, and there are recourses. However, there are times when a mis-attribution can be inadvertant or innocent. And there are times when it's in a contract. If you're hired as a ghost-writer, you're the one who does the writing while someone else gets the credit - but that's in the job description.

For better or worse, ReelViews is all Berardinelli all the time. Every review, blog entry, commentary, list, etc. on this site has been penned by yours truly. That's not to say I will never accept something from a third party, but if it happens, the attribution will be plain. However, the point of today's column isn't to talk about ReelViews but another review web site:

Until Roger's unfortunate health emergency in June, pretty much everything on was Roger's - an amazing, invaluable archive of the best-known, most prolific film critic's work dating back to before I was born. In addition, there are festival reports, interviews, and other columns - all written by Roger. The non-Roger exception was Scanners, a small corner of devoted to the writings of Jim Emerson, the talented and capable web master. Then came Roger's lengthy period of incapacitation and a shift at the website.

Perhaps the best thing would have been to let the site go on hiatus until Roger's return (he wrote his first new review a few weeks ago). Recognizing, however, that traffic would dry up, the controllers of the site decided to have Jim Emerson write new reviews. Not a big deal. Jim is a good writer, but it became something of a muddle figuring out what stuff on the website was Roger's and what was Jim's. Now that Roger is back and writing new reviews and Jim is adding his own critical input, the attribution of a particular review has become unclear. If you click through to the review, you'll find out who wrote it, but there are two areas that are misleading: the main page does not indicate whether it's an Emerson or Ebert review and the top of the review page attributes a number of stars to "Ebert" even if the review is Emerson's. Does that mean Roger assigns the stars even when Jim writes the review? I doubt it, but that's the impression the website gives.

Why am I writing about this? Twice this weekend, I saw glowing words about Borat attributed to Roger. In one case, the copy said: "4 stars for Borat! Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times." In the other instance, it was: "Roger Ebert says Borat is Ni-i-i-i-ce!" It's true that the review of Borat gives the movie four stars, but the Ebert attribution is wrong. Jim Emerson wrote the review. As far as I know, Roger hasn't yet weighed in on Borat. He may not have yet seen it.

This is meant as constructive criticism. It wouldn't take much to straighten out the website and make it clear who's writing what. As flattering as it may be for his review to be attributed to Ebert, I'm sure Emerson would prefer that the reading public recognize it as his work. With the existing ambiguity at, however, mis-attributions are understandable. A majority of readers don't go to the review text (I know this from analyzing my website traffic). Most people are interested in the number of stars - it's the thumbs up/thumbs down mentality. (For Reelviews, the clickthrough rate to the review is about 25%.) So there needs to be author attribution up front, or readers are going to assume Roger is writing everything. Jim deserves credit for the work he is doing; let's see the website give it to him. (Note: I am assuming Jim doesn't do the coding himself. If he does, it's up to him to make the changes.)

November 6 update: Earlier today, revised the way it handles attributions. The review writer is now identified on the front page as well as on the byline of the specific review. Sort of makes me feel justified for writing the above column, since I find it unlikely that coincidence led to this change soon after I wrote what I did. Then again, maybe it's a case of great minds thinking alike. :)