The Great Debate UK

from Reuters Editors:

Are we now too speedy for our own good?

Last week I was told that Reuters has lost its ethical bearings. You've sacrificed the sacred tenet of accuracy by rushing to publish information without checking if it is true. Your credibility has suffered, the value of your brand will wither and the service you offer to clients has been devalued, I heard.

It was a meaty accusation, especially as it came in the midst of a debate on ethics in journalism held at the London home of ThomsonReuters, the parent of the Reuters news organisation. The charge came from former Reuters journalists and a senior member of the trustees body that monitors Reuters compliance with its core ethical principles.

So what specifically were we being accused of and what defence did I offer?

On the 8th anniversary of the Sept 11th attacks, a day of more than normal sensitivity to security matters, CNN in the United States reported that the U.S. Coast Guard had fired on a boat in the Potomac River in Washington D.C. President Obama was visiting the nearby Pentagon at the time. Reuters rushed out a story on the reports of gunfire, citing CNN as the source for the information, while urgently checking with law enforcement officials. It transpired that CNN had been monitoring radio traffic on an unencrypted Marine frequency and had overheard a training exercise in which crew members shouted 'bang bang'. Quickly we put out an update to our story making clear it was a false alarm.

I had played a part in crafting our policy on handling such stories and from my place on the debate panel I offered another example for the audience to chew on.  On Oct. 21 Britain's Sky News reported that the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi had died in Libya. We put out a story, sourced to Sky News and repeating how it said it had the information of the death, while checking with officials and al-Megrahi's legal team in Scotland. We quickly established that Sky had it wrong and updated our story to say so.