In defense of scoops

Their reputation took a beating in Boston, but there are reasons to value the news scoop, and they go beyond ego and institutional pride

The press services standardize the main events; it is only once in a while that a great scoop is made.
—Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922

One of the hottest newspaper wars in the 1990s took place in Broward County, FL, where the fast-growing Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale faced relentless competition from The Miami Herald. As the Herald’s Broward city editor at the time, I pushed the staff relentlessly to beat our more entrenched competitor on any story, big or small.

Much of the time we won. Sometimes we lost. And then, there was the day in 1991, when a pair of our best reporters came into my office, breathless, with one of those unbelievable tips common to the South Florida news cycle.

Two sources had just told them that a local prostitute and her husband, who happened to be a sheriff’s deputy, had ensnared one of Fort Lauderdale’s most prominent politicians in their ring. And it wasn’t just any leading citizen. The politician was the vice mayor, Doug Danziger, who was closely associated with a large Broward church, and was famous for his own peculiar and vocal brand of sanctimoniousness, vowing crackdowns on pornography, nude bars, and other temptations.

That day, law enforcement authorities were telling our reporters that the vice mayor’s name had emerged as one of the prostitute’s clients. It turned out that her husband had acted as both her pimp and videographer, hiding in the bedroom and secretly taping her business through the louvers of their closet door. We would also learn that Danziger wore a cowboy hat while consorting with the deputy’s wife, though I’m not sure we were aware of that detail at the time.

This was a terrific story, but at the Herald, as at many news organizations, we wanted it confirmed by more than one source. And I couldn’t tell if our two reporters’ sources each had truly independent information or if one was simply parroting what the other had told him. So we held off publishing any details of Danziger’s involvement, even though we knew that our competitors also were aware of it.

The Sun-Sentinel, which either had more sources or more aggressive publishing standards, ran with it, stripped across the top of its Page One. The Herald mustered only a tepid update of the investigation on the Local front, without Danziger’s name. And, most importantly, the Sun-Sentinel story turned out to be true.

To this day, I’m not sure if I made the right or the wrong call based on what we knew at the time, but I am sure of this much: The Sun-Sentinel was the only news outlet anyone wanted to talk about that day, and for many days afterward. And from then on, their reporters pretty much owned this story.

I bring up this ancient history to come to the defense of a much-maligned artifact of the news-gathering business: The scoop.

In recent months, but particularly since the bumbling performance of CNN, the New York Post, and other media on the Boston marathon bombing, we have heard that scoops are no longer relevant, necessary, or even desirable.

As chaos descended upon Boston last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick warned his constituents to brace themselves “for a certain amount of misinformation and rumors masquerading as news because everyone is so anxious to fill the time….They’re hoping to get a scoop.” Jon Stewart told his Daily Show audience that CNN’s report of an early arrest in the case was “exclusive because it was completely f—-ing wrong.” In Canada, Jaime Weinman, an entertainment writer for Maclean’s magazine, wrote Wednesday that “there’s no clear advantage or good purpose to this kind of scooping.” He advised reporters to “just wait for the government press conferences and official announcements…and then they can add to the official story…without fear that they’re going to be creating panic or confusion.”

And, most eloquently, Paul Waldman, an editor at The American Prospect, delivered a short manifesto on the subject, titled “The Trouble With Scoops.” Just before listing a few of the bungled stories in Boston, Waldman wrote that “scoops are beside the point,” adding that readers “don’t care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what happened.”

To his credit, Waldman delineates between what he calls “real” and “ephemeral” scoops. A real scoop, he says, is one that wouldn’t have been revealed but for the reporter’s digging; an ephemeral scoop is information that would have been made public anyway, and so it’s more a matter of journalists’ bragging rights than a genuine contribution to the public. (Jay Rosen, the NYU professor and press critic, came up with his own taxonomy last year, breaking exclusive stories into the categories of enterprise, ego, traders, and thought scoops.)

But would the public really benefit if reporters stop chasing scoops, even those relegated to the “ephemeral” category? It’s impossible to prove, but there are reasons that go beyond institutional pride or individual ego to value the traditional, I-got-it-before-you-did scoop—particularly, of course, when it turns out to be true.

Indeed, the best example may be NBC’s Pete Williams, whose careful reporting is being heralded as the antidote to exclusive-driven journalism.

Williams burnished his reputation last week for having the wisdom—and the sourcing—to question the claim by CNN, The Associated Press, and Fox News that suspects in the marathon bombing had been arrested on Wednesday. “All we can say for certain is, all of our sources say no arrest,” NBC tweeted that day, citing Williams.

Williams received and deserved widespread praise for his restraint. But lost amid all of this adulation is that just after he finished tamping down false reports on Wednesday, by Thursday he was breaking exclusive, if incremental, stories as the manhunt for the two suspects heated up. He was revealing new details during the late-night firefight in Cambridge, the lockdown throughout the Boston area, and the arrest in Watertown Friday evening. The Huffington Post catalogued at least three clean scoops here, including that Williams was the first to report that the two suspects were brothers

Those were “ephemeral” scoops. At some point, and not much longer after Williams reported these items, each of those stories would have come out.

But reporters who break news—including news that will eventually be revealed, one way or the other—are doing more than embarrassing the competition. They are demonstrating leadership on their beats, which is important both to their sources and to their audiences.

Or to put it the other way: Reporters who get shellacked consistently by their competitors have a much harder time convincing sources that their calls should be returned. Sources talk not just to divulge information to journalists but also to obtain information from them. An inability to break fresh, legitimate scoops is often a sign that you don’t know what’s going on. And when you have no tidbits to share as part of the quid pro quo of interviewing, your access to sources, and the valuable information they provide, is often taken less seriously.

Moreover, breaking exclusives can be contagious: One scoop leads to another, and one ephemeral scoop can lead to a bigger, deeper news break.

And there is a broader good that goes beyond the individual journalist’s standing. The way a news outlet covers—or screws up—a big story can change its reputation immediately, and have long-lasting repercussions for its future.

Politico, for example, started publishing in early 2007. But its exclusive story about Sarah Palin’s $150,000 in wardrobe expenses, published a few weeks before the 2008 election, marked a turning point in how many media outlets viewed the site. The story was based on campaign finance records—something other reporters presumably would have examined at some point.

In June 2009, the celebrity site saw its stature (and audience) bolstered when it broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death. It was a clean, if “ephemeral,” scoop: The Los Angeles Times followed up with its own story just seven minutes later. But the win helped boost the site’s traffic, and it led Paul Farhi, media writer for The Washington Post, to ask, “Has TMZ built a smarter new-media organization that could teach the rest of the pack how to get it done?” A trade publication noted that the exclusive could “mark a turning point in the brand’s place in the news media landscape.”

The benefits of legitimate scoops aren’t limited to upstart news organizations. The Boston coverage could provide a longer-term payoff for NBC as well. In a column entitled “Pete Williams and the Threat to CNN,” Politico’s Dylan Byers predicted that the past week will mean that “more and more viewers will be flipping from CNN to MSNBC for their breaking news coverage—a significant revolution in the cable news industry.”

We often hear that scoops have far less value these days because their exclusivity lasts for only a few seconds, as citizens and media outlets repeat and rebroadcast the news. But that was true years ago as well: Scoops never stayed confined for long, as wire services and radio and TV stations would repeat the news, not always with attribution. Indeed, it may be better for the originators of exclusives these days. Most of the Twitter traffic I saw during the Boston tragedy quoted the source, either to its ignominy (CNN) or its fame (NBC).

There are risks, as we’ve seen in Boston and elsewhere. I first heard the mantra, “Get it first, but first get it right” from Paul Ingrassia, when he was president of Dow Jones Newswires. Ingrassia, now managing editor of Reuters, knew that an inaccurate scoop, or one whose importance or timeliness was exaggerated, could cost traders money and would dent the Newswires’ reputation. Indeed, the CNN mishaps last week provided many commentators the opportunity to rehash the network’s deadline fumble on the Supreme Court’s healthcare decision in June.

It is also clear that there are far more scoopers out there, as access to primary-source information like police-scanner chatter and court records becomes instantaneously available to anyone with decent Internet access. And so, even as their resources diminish, journalists’ roles are expanding: They must develop not just their own stories; they also have to evaluate the tips, theories, and facts provided by the greater public.

This was aptly stated last week, amid the turmoil in Boston, by John Herman and Ben Smith at Buzzfeed: “The original function of news organizations—uncovering and verifying new information—is as important as it’s always been. But it’s now become the crucial responsibility of a news organization to gather and contextualize information that the media didn’t uncover itself…. The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see.”

Reporters who consider scoops—including ephemeral ones—beneath their duty or dignity may believe that they are saving time for bigger and better stories. And sometimes they are. But they may also find themselves increasingly disconnected from their sources, from the crucial flow of tips and content that underly well-reported stories, and from a public that expects both to be informed and to be doing some of the informing themselves.

Love news about local news? Then sign up for the United States Project weekly email.

Bill Grueskin is former academic dean at Columbia Journalism School. He is now on the school's faculty and is also executive editor/training at Bloomberg News. Tags: , ,