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News judgment and the pressure to pick up

There’s been some gnashing of teeth about Reuters picking up stories by other news organisations. Some former Reuters journalists think the policy is misguided. Bob Evans, who has five decades of experience to draw from, called the practice “ethically dubious”

For some time the Reuters policy has been to pick up exclusive items from the opposition when they could be of interest to Reuters subscribers. Pickups are always a judgment call. Is the opposition’s story likely to be true? Do our reporters on the beat agree it’s an exclusive? Is it of interest to our subscribers? If so, do they need it now or can they wait for our matcher?

The policy is not new. In the mid-1980s I used to spend entire Saturday evenings in the DC bureau scouring the Washington Post for their inevitable scoop(s). Some years later Reuters began more systematically picking up opposition reports that were moving markets or which we judged would move markets.

Back in the days of the AM and PM news cycles, when Reuters stories moved over 128-Baud lines and the core clients were media organisations, one might have had some time to match an opposition exclusive. That luxury no longer exists.

The pressure to pick up has obviously grown as the pace of news coverage quickens and competition intensifies. But the need to apply solid news judgment remains. A Reuters journalist cannot jettison the “bull-shit meter” in the quest for speed. Accuracy first, speed second remains the refrain.

It's one thing to inform subscribers of newsworthy and legitimate scoops by competitors, quite another to suspend all judgment in the rush to get something out

Talking to current reporters, I gather what may have changed is the more recent insistence on the part of some editors to pick up first at all costs and apply editorial judgment later, as though some competing brands can never be wrong. It’s one thing to inform subscribers of newsworthy and legitimate scoops by competitors, quite another to suspend all judgment in the rush to get something out.

Several people have mentioned a recent Reuters pickup of a Nikkei news item that said Obama “will name” Larry Summers as Fed chairman. Apparently the item was moving markets. I can imagine the pressure in newsrooms. I gather the pickup was debated vigorously by editors.

As it turned out, two days after Reuters picked up the Nikkei story, Summers withdrew his name.

It was neither the first nor the last time a pickup was wrong. But was this pickup necessary or well advised? The lead to the Reuters story said Nikkei was reporting Obama “will name” Summers as Fed chairman. It mentioned that The New York Times and Washington Post had reported earlier in the month that Obama was “strongly inclined” to pick Summers. There’s a whopping difference between being inclined and having taken the decision, between the many trial balloons that were floated over the summer by all manner of media and the Nikkei version. Note that the White House, asked to comment on the Nikkei report and quoted in the Reuters story, said Obama had not made up his mind.

I know how difficult these pickup decisions can be, and I’m writing from a distant vantage point. Still, with legions of top reporters in Washington - at the White House, the Fed, Treasury, Congress - Reuters should be far better placed than Nikkei on these kinds of stories. If not, something is dramatically wrong. But that would be another story. 

Editors who order reporters to pick up anything from a particular source, willy nilly, or who think a Twitter feed can substitute for solid reporting are misguided, and they run roughshod over Reuters reporters’ expertise. But these aberrations are not sufficient reason to condemn a longstanding policy which, if pursued responsibly, serves subscribers.

Nelson Graves was a Reuters correspondent and editor from 1986 to 2010. He is now director of student recruitment at the Johns Hopkins University Centre in Bologna, Italy. He is also member of The Baron Editorial Advisory Board.​ ■