Our editors & readers talk
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.
It is grating for any journalist to publish information that turns out to be incorrect. Even if we can say that the original error was made elsewhere some of the flak hits those who replicate the mistake. After all, those who republish a libel are as liable for it as its originator.
So why did we not check first and publish later?
The answer goes to the heart of how the news business has changed, how the notion of authoritativeness has altered and how Reuters journalists interpret the values they live by.
But first let’s scotch one myth. Embarrassing publicity notwithstanding, it is relatively rare for Reuters to publish what turns out to be an erroneous report by another news organisation. Since we instituted our current policy on ‘pick-ups,’ as they are known in the trade, the level of ’echoed mistakes,’ has neither grown nor fallen.
To provide a complete service to our customers our policy is to pick up stories of significance that are being carried by normally reliable media that are in a position to know what they are reporting. Hence the decision to quote CNN, which has a good record on reporting its own home turf, or Sky, which has broken news on the Lockerbie bomber story and follows it closely. We protect our reputation by carefully acknowledging the source of the information and speedily checking its veracity. And hundreds of times every day Reuters journalists decline to go with a story running on local media because it ‘smells’ wrong, is trivial, or both. Mostly that decision is vindicated. The old school would have it that our policy is a failure of journalism. Yet walking the right line between publishing everything and publishing nothing actually requires a finer exercise of judgment. Better journalism, in other words.
The counter-argument is that we should only publish when we have 100 percent certainty from our own sources. That may be possible for a news organisation with a longer publishing timescale, such as a newspaper, or a periodical magazine. Yet even they, with online arms that are increasingly as ‘real-time’ as Reuters, the Associated Press or Bloomberg, face the same challenges of dealing with fast-breaking stories as the news agencies. With the advent of the Internet has come a cacophony of online voices that amplify and accelerate information, frequently dropping reference to where it originated or how it first became known. In that environment readers look to news services like Reuters to tell them what is known, and how it is known, with clarity and speed, regardless of whether we originated the story or not. In a complex, fast-moving world, no news organisation, no matter how well-resourced, can be first to report everything. All of us target the news we want to break and rely on others, who are sometimes allies and sometimes competitors, to paint their part of the picture.
Has our approach destroyed the relationship of trust that our clients and readers have with us?
The question supposes there was once a golden age of authoritative journalism where sourcing was always rigorous and the pursuit of truth always relentless. History suggests otherwise. Current anxiety over journalistic values is often a proxy for broader worry over the health of the media industry. Declining revenues have driven cost cutting that has threatened, many feel, the standards of journalism. Reuters is stressing speed for fear of losing its audience, critics say, and will do so at the expense of its reputation for accuracy.
Yet our business has always put a premium on speed, and given that we are one of very few global news organisations that is expanding its staff during the downturn we feel we are doing the right things to maintain our audience.
The nature of authority in the news business has also changed. Real-time readers understand breaking news is contingent, uncertain and provisional. Exclusivity evaporates fast as aggregators, citers and plagiarists disseminate the fruits of others’ reporting toil. Respect is won by breaking news and by operating with clear rules and standards. But it also come from guiding readers carefully to the reports of others, binding the audience in with compelling packages of conversation, illumination and curated content.
When the first plane hit the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, Reuters did not put out a story instantly. We were so mesmerised by the unbelievability of the event, and so uncertain over how to handle what we saw on CNN, that we froze. How many readers were lost that day and how many on the day of the Potomac gun battle that never was?