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Are we now too speedy for our own good?

By Sean Maguire
October 27, 2009

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?

Comments

Stick with quality. The readers who feed on the latest unconfirmed rumors will never pay for your content…

Posted by Robustus | Report as abusive
 

I think it’s false dilemma contrasted precision or speed.

The problem is that Reuters provides quasi-permanent biased economic information supporting high-risk positions.

Posted by am-bj | Report as abusive
 

Reuters ,like the other mainstream news outlets doesn,t do it,s homework properly ,checking the facts first,as this costs it time ,time to be the first news broadcaster,to tell the latest news.This is typical as we see with news coverage of Israel that,s so blatantly scandalous ,so what,s the problem as it,s been going on for many a decade?

Posted by Samuel | Report as abusive
 

This piece is unfortunately mostly unconvincing excuse-making. “We protect our reputation by carefully acknowledging the source of the information” is something you should think about better– perhaps you should realize that this doesn’t protect your reputation at all in readers’ minds. All they see is a story that was false, coming from you, and the attribution, if used as justification for misreported facts, comes off as just a way of saying “–But, but, it isn’t my fault! They said it first, and I told you that in my original report!” There are a couple of words for spreading “news” that one knows only by word of mouth: “rumor” and “gossip”. People don’t rely on Reuters because of its speed alone. Reuters’s capacity to be a valuable source comes because, in an age of instant publication via blogs, dubious journalistic sources, and 24-hour coverage on every form of media, we need some sources we can trust to be accurate, to stand out and be different in an important way from the blog-reporters. I would encourage Reuters not to have the above, self-justifying sort of reaction, and instead re-examine its policy on “pick-ups”, which, according to the above, is admitted not to have reduced “echoed mistakes” at all.

Posted by TMcGill | Report as abusive
 

Thanks for writing this up Sean. I was at the event last week and thought you handled a tricky question well.

I think you are absolutely right to question whether there has ever been a golden age of journalism. The tension between truth and speed is one of the most fundamental components of journalism. It makes news, and especially breaking news, very exciting but it makes it tricky too.

I remember listening to senior newspaper editors at the Telegraph debating when to go with Obama’s victory in the paper. We were hitting tight deadlines. Go too soon and call it wrongly and the paper’s credibility would be severely damaged. Equally, play safe and send the paper out without declaring who’d won and boy would we look silly in the morning when our rivals, the wires, online and broadcast media had moved the story on. We’d have lost a great many readers that day.

It has always come down to editorial judgment. News organisations must support journalists and ensure that they are in as good a position as possible to make that kind of call. Part of that is helping them learn to negotiate conversations online in a similar way to the ways in which local staff can help make sense of stories broken on local networks. The context is always vital, we all need to learn how to read them better online.

 

If a news-agency publishes information that later turns out to be incorrect – it is a fallacy to blame the method of dissemination.

Information and the medium used to disseminate it are completely independent of each other.

 

It is clear from the editorial above as well as Reuters’ track record that they are not in the business of publishing “unconfirmed rumors”.

Anyone who expects news to be double and triple fact-checked before it is posted online understands neither journalism nor the Internet.

An intrinsic aspect of news is that it changes: facts are unearthed, stories develop, and the goal of understanding the world around us is never fully reached. Would you have no important information ever be reported on for the sake of ultimate precision?

In my opinion Reuters has proven itself to be abundantly cautious.

Posted by Alby | Report as abusive
 

Reuters should concentrate on accuracy, not speed. There are hundreds of new sources out there that will always beat you on speed, so you add nothing new. Wikipedia is usually faster than Reuters.

The point is when you see X has died on Wikipedia/Twitter/Google News, you don’t KNOW that it is true. You wait until the BBC reports it, then it MUST be true. Would be nice if Reuters was like that.

To the extent that you still want speed you should use super cautious wording. Perhaps write this:
“At 12:79pm CNN reported X has happened. Reuters has been unable to verify this independently, but is working on it now.”
Then at least you are showing that you are not reporting it because of verification rather than unimportance.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive
 

“Respect is won by breaking news” – maybe ‘breaking’ is the key. There’s a window of time between breaking news and verifying it. If it’s clearly marked as ‘breaking’, and the tag doesn’t last too long, we’d be better able to judge.

Posted by Michael Grazebrook | Report as abusive
 

Remember the reporting on operation cast lead? The bombing of Gaza?

The report that the Israelis had hit a UN hospital? All the outrage and fury which resulted from that report?

Only for the media to find out that the shell had actually landed outside the hospital…

But that was never the point, was it?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive
 

This whole scoop and speed thing is nonsense. How fast can fast be ? While a third of the World sleeps, events unfold everywhere and elsewhere. It’s not like we get online Minority Report streaming. Most of us wake up the next morning and assimilate old news. At work we hardly ever check the news unless something major happens. Scoops have a lifespan of about 15 minutes before it takes on a life of its own and the rest of the show carries on as normal. They most probably make up <1% of all news. I have not seen many apologies this year, so facts must have been correct. Then one should also not confuse opinion with facts, which maybe is the problem that ‘am-bj’ above is experiencing. A columnist creates debate by opinion, there is no time-keeper though, and the floor is therefore open until it gets archived, even then it may still carry on, as it often does.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive
 

I also think the scoop and speed thing is nonsense. And
obviously on the way out. The media have lost most of their
revelance to the consumers. So while the media is
desperately trying to upscale the importance and relevance of what they are doing all too often attempting to maintain the self-importance, get attention one way or another, the vanishing consumers, those “media maxed” are having the real power now.
A look at the good-bye page of the Rocky Mountain News
permits a look back at that speed and sensationalist
business, what it was like – history by now -
http://www.rockymountainnews.com/

And very telling was the very last news of the closure
of the website that was set up by the former journalists
of that paper because it could just get 200 subscribers.
http://www.businessinsider.com/ex-newspa per-staffers-denver-news-site-to-end-200 9-10

Gone with the wind. And that is understandably
hard to stomoch for those in the media circus. (I
wouldn’t be worried that much about Reuters, the bell
tolls rather for others.)

Posted by JF | Report as abusive
 

Unfortunately speed and accuracy have an inverse relationship, aggravated by propensity to guess. And if guessed right, you are the leader of news upbeat. When the Thai emperor was hospitalized, it seemed the media more inclined to say he was in critical condition than to say he was recovering.

Posted by Jocomus | Report as abusive
 

Thanks JF(K)(sic).

We carry on about the speed of light, but we have examples right in front of our eyes: TV, word of mouth, gossip and text messages. I would prefer accurate reporting and quality opinion, which Reuters clearly strives for. Reporting at below the speed of light would also take pressure off ridiculous deadlines and give Reuters’ staff more time to party.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive
 

Talk about out the gate too fast. Today you ran a story:
Gold at new record on wobbly dollar, global stocks weak
First line read:
LONDON (Reuters) – Gold rose above $1,120 an ounce to a fresh record high on Thursday, the U.S. dollar hovered near 15-month lows while shares weakened, particularly in emerging markets

At 1249 MST 12Nov2009 in Idaho
Gold is at 1108.00 (COMEX: GCX09.CMX)
Not sure what numbers you folks look at to prognosticate doom :(

CHEERS;)

Posted by Norbert Cannon | Report as abusive
 

Dec 14th 2009 you ran an opinion piece on global warming by Dr.Fred Singer. No where in his article did he state he was a paid advocate for the automotive and oil industries. Further he did not state that his educational back round is electrical engineering and physics, not oceanography or atmospheric studies. His commentary would lead on to think otherwise.

Does no one on your staff check the credentials or review the veracity of the commentary offered by contributors to your opinion page?

Posted by eddieblack | Report as abusive
 

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