Reuters Opens its Kimono

Wire service makes reporting handbook freely available online

Dean Wright recently printed out a copy of the Reuters Handbook of Journalism—all 500-plus pages of it. Yesterday he used it as a prop in a video he shot for YouTube’s new Reporters’ Center. Wright, Reuters’s global editor of ethics, innovation, and news standards, brandished the thick stack of paper to drive home the point that “we’ve moved beyond the time when people were carrying around books with style guides.”

We’re also apparently beyond the time when all journalism organizations charge people for said style books.

Last week Reuters made its entire Handbook of Journalism available online for free. It’s perhaps the single most comprehensive document related to journalistic style, standards, and values available online free of charge. Not surprisingly, it has a lot to say about errors, accuracy, and corrections, and I’ve summarized those sections here.

Wright says Reuters put the Handbook online in part because “We live in a time when trust is an endangered commodity, and with that being the case it’s more important than ever that consumers see the guidelines and rules we follow.”

But there’s another aspect of the time we live in that also makes it important for Reuters to open its kimono. Aside from just showing people Reuters’s standards, the Handbook is also a guide for citizen journalists and new news organizations. Reuters is in effect saying, “Here’s what we’ve learned, and here’s how we do it. Now you give it a shot.”

Journalism as a whole gains by having as many people and organizations possible sharing their lessons learned and guidelines for doing journalism that matters. Wright says Reuters wants to play a role in helping define the standards of journalism, now and into the future. Putting its Handbook online is a smart way of doing that.

“We in the mainstream media have a responsibility to provide some standards in this new environment,” Wright says. “Now anyone can be a publisher if they have access to a computer. We hope our stylebook is a good place to start.”

It’s more than just a place to start. The Handbook contains over 500 pages of advice ranging from how to avoid falling for a hoax to the way to properly cover a cricket match. It also advises reporters that “Terms such as pro-choice, pro-life and pro-abortion are open to dispute and should be avoided” when covering abortion. It’s a wealth of information. Still, I wonder how many journalists sit down and digest their organization’s entire style guide. Does Reuters expect its reporters to memorize the document?

“When someone comes into Reuters the handbook is a part of the on boarding that we do with new journalists,” he says. “They’re not expected to commit it to memory, but they are expected to be familiar with it and certainly read it through the course of their employment.”

Putting it online makes it easier for anyone to search the Handbook and find the information they need at a particular moment. Combine it with YouTube’s new Reporters’ Center, and you have two valuable free resources for journalists everywhere. Training and knowledge are being taken out of the classroom and put online for everyone to enjoy. This can only help journalism. Of course, the key today is for the so-called mainstream media to listen as much as they talk. They too have much to learn, which is something Wright acknowledges.

“Think about how we used social media in the context of the Iran story and the unrest in China,” he says. “Those stories have been difficult for mainstream media to report correctly. Sometimes the only source of information in these situations is social media.”

As a result, Reuters has had to adapt some of its editorial procedures to deal with citizen journalism.

“In case where we aren’t able to verify a cellphone picture we may use that image with an editor’s note that says this comes from a social media site and we haven’t been able to vouch for its authenticity,” Wright says.

But despite the changes impacting journalism, Wright says the Handbook’s core standards remain unchanged.

“The standards by and large are holding up very well,” he says. “They have served us well for a long time. Social media and the new world we find ourselves in is another way to gather and distribute information, but the standards of accuracy and freedom from bias and trust are just as applicable.”

OK, but let’s get down to the most important question facing style guide authors everywhere: is “Twitter” a verb, or should you use “tweet”?

“My preference for a verb is to tweet,” Wright says. “There may be another opinion out there. It’s just another example of how quickly things change.”

Correction of the Week

“IN our edition dated April 12, 2009, we reported that Thomas Tolan, below, a current inmate of Maghaberry prison was facing disciplinary proceedings having allegedly been found by prison officials to be in possession of hard core pornographic DVDs.
It has been pointed out to us by Mr Tolan that he was not in fact found in possession of any such material and that he was fully exonerated by the authorities in respect of the matter.

“We are happy to correct this matter and regret any embarassment caused to Mr Tolan.” – News of the World

Bad Science

“Owing to an editing error, our report ‘Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists’ (June 23) wrongly stated that research presented at the recent BPS conference by Sophia Shaw found that women who drink alcohol are more likely to be raped. In fact, the research found the opposite. We apologise for our error.” – Daily Telegraph (U.K.)

Parting Shot

“In a July 13 story, The Associated Press described Shulamit Kishak-Cohen, who helped smuggle Jews to Israel from Lebanon in the 1950s and was awarded a rare citation, as having carried on a romantic liaison with a French intelligence agent. The story should have attributed the information to a book about Kishak-Cohen, ‘Shula: Code Name The Pearl.’ Her family says the assertion is entirely false and sullies her reputation.” – Associated Press

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.