August 8, 2006
Downsizing Credibility: Cleaning Up the Reuters MessBy Thomas Lifson
Journalism has changed forever. Two of the world's most prominent news organizations have been forced to retract material and eat humble pie, thanks to the debunking of internet journalists. Spotting anomalies and, in spontaneously self—organized fashion, combing through the evidence and applying expertise, within a few hours dispositive evidence of outright fraud has been offered to the world. Twice. A pattern is established:
After exploding for about 24 hours on the internet, and being denied by the purveyors, the scandal reaches talk radio in the United States. With millions of informed listeners asking awkward questions, the mainstream media takes up the issue. Eventually, the fraud is withdrawn by its original sponsors.
The prestige of the world's major media players continues to plummet, even as a raft of new internet—based competitors eats away at their audience and advertising base. Take a look at the stock price performance of any big American newspaper publisher to see the results.
Dan Rather of CBS News lost much of his remaining luster and later his job over the phony memorandum he and his network peddled�to the American public. Now Reuters, the storied news agency, has admitted supplying a doctored photograph to the world's media, exaggerating the extent of damage to Beirut following an Israeli airstrike.
Unfortunately, Reuters is doing as poor a job of responding to this crisis as it did in scrutinizing the now—notorious image it foolishly backed with its prestige.
At first Reuters repudiated just one photo. Many of the critics of the photo had also raised questions about other images of Mr. Hajj, especially some from the alleged massacre of 57 at Qana, a widely—reported figure that was later downsized by half to 28.
But after rejecting the allegations, in the face of continued debunking, Reuters caved in and removed from sale all of the nearly one thousand images from Mr. Hajj it had offered to the world's mass media and announced Mr. Hajj would no longer supply it with material in the future.
PR experts are uniform in their advice on handling bad news: get it all out quickly, and let it blow over quickly. The worst thing one can do is let the bad news out slowly, keeping it in the public eye.
Apologists for Reuters in the mainstream noted that a mistake was made and the relevant person fired. The fringe even accused Israeli spin—doctors of capitalizing on a technicality to divert attention from its various crimes and follies.
Left unmentioned is the role of the photo editors employed by Reuters. After all, one of the primary claims of antique media against their internet competitors is the virtue of having editors at hand to ensure the quality and reliability of the news they supply. In other industries, the role is called 'quality assurance manager' and when bad product is shipped, the QA group is called on the carpet and is made to explain what happened and what countermeasures are being put in place to make certain it never happens again.
Quite frequently, in fact, detailed explanations of the process changes implemented are supplied to customers. In my thirty years of management consulting, I have worked with quite a few QA people who have flown to key customers to personally deliver presentations, complete with graphs and charts, explaining the changes meant to ensure no further glitches.
From the public record, however, no such examination has been proclaimed by Reuters.� The smarter and more agile of the world's newspaper editors, however, are noticing. Since newspaper editors are among Reuters' clients, this sort of criticism ought to carry a lot of weight.
Absent the sort of detailed accountability measures one would expect in any other industry where quality matters,� we can only speculate about what went wrong at Reuters.
One fascinating clue comes from the kerfuffle which erupted about two years ago, when Reuters was undergoing a financial crisis, and announced cost—saving measures, including the offshoring of photo editing from expensive London and New York to lower cost locations such as Bangalore, India and Singapore. Horst Fass, a former senior photo editor for the Associated Press, lamented these moves and worried about quality control
So far, the names and locations of the photo editors who reviewed and approved the Hajj images have not been made public. That should have happened at the same time the photo kill notice was issued, or at least at the time the Hajj archive was repudiated. They are the QA team, and they should be explaining either what they have done to improve their performance or where their careers will be taking them, now that they have lost their jobs.
Strung Along by Stringers?
But beyond the problem of Hajj the fraud is the larger problem of QA for the entire reporting force Reuters and most other news agencies field in Muslim lands. For language reasons, and for personal safety reasons, stringers, not full—time employees, are used to work the ground in places like Qana. Who are they?
One thing we can be certain of, is that they are people who feel reasonably certain they will not be murdered by Hiz b'allah (or Hamas or Saddam, when he was in power) for reporting news inconvenient to those with the guns. This alone is reason to suspect their fairness.
Reuters and other news agencies employing stringers need to be forthright with their public about who these people are and what are the limits under which they operate. Of course, doing so will limit the degree to which their reports are trusted. No doubt, that is why such caveats have rarely if ever been supplied.
When Reuters was still backing Hajj, it made no mention of his status as a stringer. But once he was repudiated, words like 'stringer,' 'part—timer' and 'freelance' became suddenly visible.
This will not do.
War—time reporting always has its limits. When news is gathered under the thumb of murderous tyrants and terrorists, it cannot be fully trusted. Either acknowledge the limits (and diminish the value of your product), or don't offer it at all. Pretending that a product has met QA standards when it has not only damages and ultimately destroys a brand name.
Why is it that businesses making soft drinks understand this common sense dictum, while major news agencies do not?
Ed Lasky assisted in research for this article.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.