Every good journalist wants a scoop. Working in a world with relatively few rewards, the journalist seeks the occasional and often Pyrrhic victory of getting a story before anyone else gets its. Then, if the story is important enough so that other media outlets pick it up, professional practice demands that the other guys attribute the story to you. It’s their acknowledgement that, for a brief moment, you’re a better journalist than they are.
To those outside the culture of journalism, or not sympathetic to it, the desire for a scoop may sound a little crazy. But the desire to be first is a real and effective spur to journalistic practice. Sometimes, however, it can throw other journalistic practices out of kilter.
Such an instance occurred last week when New York Times reporters and editors struck a deal with Columbia University over a report that Columbia produced concerning anti-Semitism among its faculty. The deal was that Columbia would give the Times the report a day early if the Times would agree not to interview any of those who made the complaints about anti-Semitism in its story. Daniel Okrent, public editor of the Times, outlines what happened in his column this week.
The result of the deal the Times made short-changed the readers. Instead of getting a complete picture of the story, they got only Columbia University’s official version of it. The reporter and editors involved with this should have known better, but as Okrent points out, the promise of being first with a story can muddle the thinking of event the best and most experienced journalists.
Wanting to be first, to beat the competition, to compel other media to say “as reported yesterday in The New York Times” puts the paper in a position where it can build staff spirit, expand its reputation and win prestigious journalism prizes. And be manipulated like Silly Putty, too.
Although the deal itself might be a little unusual, giving the reader incomplete information in order to preserve a scoop occurs fairly often. Driven by the image that another news organization is about to break a story that a journalist has captured or worked on for a while, a newspaper, television station or web site will go with a story as soon as possible. Or, conversely, it will hold off publishing and keeps its information a secret even from other staff members until an opportune moment.
Or it will not contact sources that it should contact for fear of tipping them off about the fact that it is working on something the source may not like.
Such was the case when the St. Paul Pioneer Press found out in 1999 that members of the basketball team of the University of Minnesota had received improper help in maintaining their academic eligibility. The reporter and editor in that case made the decision early on in researching the story that they would not contact members of the basketball team or the university about the story until just before it went to press for fear that the university would take action to cover up the scandal and thus destroy the newspaper’s scoop. A thorough review of this case can be found at Journalism.org. (It makes an excellent case study for a classroom discussion of journalistic practices and editorial decision-making.)
In this latest case, the New York Times rightly got its hands slapped and had to publicly acknowledge its collusion with Columbia University.
But that embarrassment will not stop or even abate the practice of sacrificing other journalistic tenants, such as complete reporting or fairness, to the idea of beating the other guy.
Jim Stovall (Posted April 10, 2005)
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.