Can The News Be Held Back?

from the probably-not-any-more dept

In this internet age where everyone has a huge publishing platform at their disposal, and people are encouraged to become "citizen journalists" is it even possible anymore to keep "news" events quiet? A key example under discussion was the recent passing of famed TV news anchor Tim Russert. About a half an hour after he was confirmed dead at a hospital, someone had updated his Wikipedia page with the information -- a full 38 minutes before NBC announced his death. It turns out that the edit came from someone working at a company that managed various NBC affiliate websites. The employee was apparently fired -- though, you could question why. We've reached an age where many people feel that sharing the news is the best way to interact with news these days.

Still, it does raise some ethical questions. As Mathew Ingram asks:
Was the person who changed the Wikipedia page committing an act of journalism, or divulging privileged information?
This used to be a much simpler question when journalists were journalists -- and privileged information was privileged information. But the boundaries of both things have become quite blurred these days, and that's only going to result in more questions being raised before society agrees on the answers.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    some old gy, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 6:45pm

    wtf was he fired for?

    how the hell is a death of a person "privileged information"? Now that's a lawsuit waiting to happen.

     

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    Jake, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 7:03pm

    Re: wtf was he fired for?

    For one thing, did whoever made the edit check to make sure that Russert's next of kin had been informed first? If my dad suddenly dropped dead, I'd rather not find out from the Six O'Clock News or Wikipedia.

     

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  3.  
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    some old gy, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 7:21pm

    Re: Re: wtf was he fired for?

    Why not? What if you were "out and about" would you rather the news got suppressed by 3-4 days while someone tracked you down? or would it be better to just hear it on the radio...

    (I could go either way on this... but I am an anti-romantic.. I'd rather know, so I can make appropriate plans immediately, I think)

     

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    withersteen, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 7:24pm

    He was fired because he was working, indirectly, for NBC. NBC had requested that this information be witheld pending their own announcement. His employer, NOT NBC, fired him. When you yank your employer's bosses' chain what do you expect to happen? He bit the hand that fed him. He had every right to share the information, as a private person. On the company dime is different.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Cowherd, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 8:19pm

    Privileged information, my ass

    If someone dies in a hospital, that is immediately a matter of public record. A simple fact. A public-domain fact. No kind of copyright, trade secrecy, or similarly is remotely applicable. Anyone checking official death-certificate records can learn the same fact.

     

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  6.  
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    cram, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 8:31pm

    other issues

    Hi

    I think this raises several issues regarding Wikipedia itself. How does one verify such updates, especially since Wikipedia places great emphasis on citation? This was a scoop; does Wikipedia allow for scoops?

     

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    ttrygve, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 8:48pm

    privileged information

    I'm with some of the others, it's hard to accept this (or most other news) as "privileged information". Most news, simply by nature of being news, is public.

     

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    Anonymous Cowherd, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 8:48pm

    Re: other issues

    Wikipedia expects claims to be cited "eventually", and deletes anything unsupported by citation after enough time spent flagged as such.

    So, Wikipedia does allow for scoops, if other sources are cited within a certain timeframe.

    In this instance, other sources could have been cited within hours.

    Death certificates are generally a matter of public record, and this particular dead guy's could presumably have been cited immediately or at any time.

    (In fact, at this time two sources are already cited regarding the death in question: The Huffington Post and USA Today.)

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 8:57pm

    Re: privileged information

    Most news, simply by nature of being news, is public

    So say the paparazzi, too, so it must be so!

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 8:58pm

    Re: Re: Re: wtf was he fired for?

    If it takes someone 3-4 days to track you down, chances are you're not exactly hip to the information age ...

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Cowherd, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 9:04pm

    Re: privileged information

    "So say the paparazzi, too, so it must be so!"

    Nice straw man. But deaths are a matter of immediate public record; reporting truthfully that one has occurred is hardly comparable to hounding a live celebrity and attempting to invade their privacy.

    Perhaps an investigation with questionable ethics into the lurid details of a death, then publication of same, would fall into the kind of sleazy paparazzi journalism you lambast, but reporting the mere fact of someone's death is nothing like that.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 23rd, 2008 @ 9:14pm

    It is interesting to note what the MSM omits. They try to hold it back, but it just makes them look bad.

     

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    mkvf, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 5:03am

    There's a moral question here first: Some of us might not mind finding out a family member has died through an (essentially anonymous, and possibly false) Wikipedia edit, but I guess a lot of people would think it kind of nice to have the news broken to them by someone they know.

    There was no real public interest in breaking the news a few minutes ahead of the official announcement. Perhaps if it was Dick Cheney's corpse, being propped up Brezhnev-style for months on end, there would be news value. There wasn't here.

    That seems like one of the flaws of 'citizen journalism'. There's a lot of problems with professional reporting too (and I declare an interest here, as a reporter on a minor magazine), but people who do journalism for a living and have received some training generaly at least consider moral issues like this.

    When people are submitting news just for kudos, like this person was, some of them seem to ignore these issues. It's kind of like the idiots who go around posting "First!" in every comment thread they can find: the content and context isn't important, just beating everone else is.

    Disregarding ethics and all that though, there's a simple contractual issue. This person was employed to collect news on behalf of NBC, not to give it away it to the company's rivals. If you work for Widget Manglers Inc., and take a bunch of prototype widgets out of the factory to give away, you can expect to be fired. This seems to be an example of pretty much the same betrayal of one's duty to an employer.

    Perhaps now they'll have a chance to demonstrate their skills as a 'citizen journalist' by coming up with some stories they haven't just leaked from their employer.

     

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  14.  
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    Ima Fish, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 5:58am

    Re:

    "There's a moral question here first"

    Moral question? Exactly where is this morality derived? The bible. The koran? Some mystic scroll?

    "I guess a lot of people would think it kind of nice to have the news broken to them by someone they know."

    So your basis for morality is "nicness." If someone finds it nice, you have to do it. Some people would not find it nice to have their broken leg reset by a doctor. I certainly would not find that nice. But yet it needs to be done for the bone to heal. Are you saying that unpleasant and painful medical procedures are immoral because they're not nice? Just wondering.

    "There was no real public interest in breaking the news a few minutes..."

    Why? You did not give any argument to support this assertion. Does merely saying it make it true?

    "That seems like one of the flaws of 'citizen journalism'...'

    So the flaw is "citizen journalism" is that it gets the news out faster than traditional journalism? You find virtue in getting your news late? Wow, you can't argue against that nonsense.

    "It's kind of like the idiots who go around posting "First!" in every comment thread they can find"

    Let me get this straight, the early reporting of a factually accurate and legitimate news story is somehow analogous with someone posting "first post." Do you even bother to think before you type?

    "Disregarding ethics and all that though, there's a simple contractual issue."

    Agreed, if there was a specific contract provision that covered this situation, and if he violated the contract, and if the contract specifies employment termination for this conduct, then employment termination was warranted. But I've never seen the contract, and neither of you, so we're sort of speculating here.

    "Perhaps now they'll have a chance to demonstrate their skills as a 'citizen journalist' by coming up with some stories they haven't just leaked from their employer."

    I love your use of the word "leak." What is a leak, but water being slowing released from a place where it should not be released.

    You seem to praise that idea that it is the job of legitimate journalist to control the flow of news. That, for some bizarre reason, we're not equipped to deal with news in real time. We have to have it delayed, processed, and manipulated by large corporations before it's ready to be poured into our TVs, newspapers, and computers.

    I'll let you in on some more news. This sort of thinking is the exact sort of system that "citizen journalists" are trying to destroy. I'm a big boy. I can handle real news. If you can't, it's your problem.

     

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  15.  
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    mkvf, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 6:25am

    Touchy, aren't we?

    Exactly where is this morality derived?

    Common human decency. You see your neighbour's mum run over by a bus. Do you bang on their door and shout, "Your mum's dead", or wait a while for the hospital/police to confirm the situation and get in touch, before going round to offer your condolences?

    No-one was hiding Russert's death, it wasn't some big conspiracy by the MSM (which, like all conspiracy theories seems really to just be a cipher for the Elders of Zion), it was just people being nice and trying to make sure his family learnt about his death in the best way possible.

    You seem to praise that idea that it is the job of legitimate journalist to control the flow of news.

    Interesting that you describe what I do as 'legitimate', without scare quotes. I'm flattered you think the fact I get paid makes me more legitimate a source than someone who doesn't.

    To answer your question though, no that's not really what I think. It's a journalist's job to add value to facts: context, background, that kind of thing. It's not just finding something out and telling everyone (although there is value to that too). It takes a lot time to do that well, and I, for one, can do it well enough to get paid for my time.

    I'm also too selfish to do it for free, and too disorganised to earn money from it outside of a salaried job. If other people want to volunteer their efforts, or can come up with ways to get paid without working for someone else, good luck to them.

    Citizen journalism is a good thing. This wasn't an example of journalism though, 'citizen' or otherwise, just of hurtful and unkind gossiping.

     

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  16.  
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    Ima Fish, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 6:58am

    Re:

    "Common human decency. You see your neighbour's mum run over by a bus. Do you bang on their door and shout, "Your mum's dead", or wait a while for the hospital/police to confirm the situation and get in touch, before going round to offer your condolences?"

    So you're saying that fired employee personally notified the family without confirming the situation? Because if that's what you are saying you're wrong, once again.

    First, he did not personally notify the family. And second, he waited until it was verified prior to posting it on Wikipedia.

    "No-one was hiding Russert's death,"

    Great, the we agree the employee should not be fired. I'm glad you finally came to your senses. Because if NBC was not hiding it, the former employee did nothing wrong.

    "Interesting that you describe what I do as 'legitimate', without scare quotes."

    Actually, I never said you were a "legitimate" anything.

    "It takes a lot time to do that well..."

    The employee reported it 38 minutes early. Is that how much time it always takes "to do that well"? Or does it depend on the news story? Could you provide a list of how long stories should be hid before being released? Thanks for clearing that up for us.

    "Citizen journalism is a good thing. This wasn't an example of journalism though, 'citizen' or otherwise, just of hurtful and unkind gossiping."

    Let me get this straight, you're comparing a report of an actual and accurate news event to gossip?! Once again, you can't argue against that sort of nonsense.

    And you're ignoring the fact that some news is hurtful and unkind. Should we not report on Islamic terrorism because it offends Muslims? Should we only report on happy and uplifting news? If that's the news you want, you're perfectly free to subscribe to People magazine.

     

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  17.  
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    mkvf, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 7:27am

    So you're saying that fired employee personally notified the family without confirming the situation? Because if that's what you are saying you're wrong, once again.

    Didn't notify them personally, no, but announced it before it was confirmed: hence the analogy with shouting the news in the street.

    RTFA


    “We were not prepared to say anything until all the family had heard,” said Allison Gollust, an NBC News spokeswoman. “The last thing we wanted to do was to have the family discover this on the air.” She said NBC had asked the other networks to hold back and they readily agreed.


    he waited until it was verified prior to posting it on Wikipedia.

    Granted. But did he wait until he was sure the family knew? I cover an industry where people are killed, frequently. Generally, I take the stance there's no rush to release names until we know there's been a public announcment. That doesn't mean we hold off reporting the why and how.

    We decide on whether to report something by considering news value, public interest, and the feelings of the people involved. Tim Russert isn't Brezhnev: It doesn't matter to anyone but his friends and family whether he's alive or dead, so there's no urgent public interest in announcing his death. If you have a conscience, that's one of the easiest judgements to make.

    you're comparing a report of an actual and accurate news event to gossip

    Bob Dodd bangs your mum.

    That may well be a fact, but it hasn't really embiggenned either of us for me to tell you, or to announce it on a public forum. It's not the factual status of the story that makes it news or gossip, but whether it benefits anyone else to tell or be told it.

    And you're ignoring the fact that some news is hurtful and unkind. Should we not report on Islamic terrorism because it offends Muslims?

    Not at all. Much news will hurt someone, and that's often one sign of it being good reporting. The question, again, though is if it also benefits anyone.

     

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  18.  
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    mkvf, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 7:33am

    Err, yeah, just noticed I contradicted myself and the source in my first couple of paragraphs (that's quality journalism for you).

    Rather than saying:

    "Didn't notify them personally, no, but announced it before it was confirmed: hence the analogy with shouting the news in the street."

    I should have said:

    "Didn't notify them personally, no, but announced it ahead of anyone who knew Russert's family: hence the analogy with shouting the news in the street."

     

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  19.  
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    Nasch, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 10:10am

    Re:

    Tim Russert isn't Brezhnev: It doesn't matter to anyone but his friends and family whether he's alive or dead, so there's no urgent public interest in announcing his death.

    If that were true, NBC wouldn't have reported it at all, and neither would any other MSM organization. They wouldn't have noticed or cared that this guy posted the info on WP, wouldn't have fired him, and we wouldn't be having this conversation. Clearly it matters to a lot of people that he died. It was a newsworthy event.

     

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  20.  
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    Flatlinebb, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 11:40am

    huh?

    Who's Tim Russert? Must be someone worthy of this argument.

    And also, do you people watch for all and any updates to Wikipedia every microsecond? Chances are Tim Russert's family isn't even computer-literate and getting news from Wikipedia would be the farthest thing from their mind.

    And lastly, this is a perfect example of the Streisand Effect: calling attention to a small or non-event causes it to balloon into a big deal.

     

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  21.  
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    mkvf, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 12:06pm

    @nasch

    Sure, he's newsworthy in so far as the public is interested, but that's not the same as there being a public interest in reporting his death ASAP. For someone in a position of real power, their life or death may have repercussions that effect everyone.

    I guess my only real point, for all the keystrokes I've spent on this, is that a lot of trained journalists are more likely to weigh issues like this than Wikipedia posters or 'citizen journalists' are. The flipside of that though is the effort so many media outfits make to strive for fake balance, when in fact one side is right and the other wrong.

     

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  22.  
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    Tony, Jun 24th, 2008 @ 12:13pm

    Re: Privileged information, my ass

    But don't you know that the news OWNS the facts?

    At least, they certainly act like they do.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Cowherd, Jun 25th, 2008 @ 5:19am

    Re:

    *catches up* Hmm, mkvf has been into the "magic powder" again, hasn't he?

    "There was no real public interest in breaking the news a few minutes ahead of the official announcement."

    There is real public interest in preserving freedom of speech. (And even, for that matter, in keeping Wikipedia up to date.)

    "there's a simple contractual issue. This person was employed to collect news on behalf of NBC, not to give it away it to the company's rivals."

    Wikipedia is an archrival of NBC now? I bet this is news to Jimbo Wales. If it's true then all I've got to say is Rah! Rah! Go, Wikipedia, Go!

    "If you work for Widget Manglers Inc., and take a bunch of prototype widgets out of the factory to give away, you can expect to be fired."

    Hardly comparable. For one thing, your "analogy" involves the outright theft of physical property. There may also be patent, copyright, or trade secrecy issues. However, the fact of someone's death, being a) a mere fact and b) automatically a matter of public record and public-domain government-kept statistics, certainly cannot reasonably be considered either a trade secret, patentable, or copyrightable.

     

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  24.  
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    Jonny Storm, Jun 25th, 2008 @ 7:51pm

    This comment adds nothing, but...

    Common human decency. You see your neighbour's mum run over by a bus. Do you bang on their door and shout, "Your mum's dead", or wait a while for the hospital/police to confirm the situation and get in touch, before going round to offer your condolences?

    1. Your analogy infers that "You" see an event, make a potentially incorrect assumption, then--without evidence--relate your conclusion to someone who would have significant interest in that event.

    The only problem I see here is that your comparison includes a rather obvious modification that is not present in the actual story: a lack of evidence. By adding a premise, you've modified the special formula that would have made this a suitable argument.

    2. Personally, if I were to see such an event and knew one of the victim's relatives, I'd consider letting them know of it to be the "right thing." You're logically equating telling the victim's family member, whom you don't intimately know, with being excessively blunt and callous--two very different things. Hence, you've managed to, once again, inject an additional premise, thus invalidating your argument.

    3. You put forth the assertion that you care about this fictional victim, but you give me no cause to believe you.

    If by "wait a while" you mean "wait anxiously," then you're probably doing worse than gossip: you're being a disingenuous weasel with an agenda. You're hoping to get a little, social reward for being there, seeing it all happen, and expressing your "sincere" condolences to a neighbor that is probably feeling too hurt to appreciate an obligatory acknowledgement from some guy who lives next door.

    On the other hand, if you mean "wait apathetically" or even "wait until a more appropriate time," you're merely shirking what may be considered a kind of moral responsibility. You make no mention of encountering the neighbor on the way home. Would you wave to them, then avoid them? Would you share some small talk without mentioning what you saw? Would you even go so far as to have a nice conversation with them, maybe even discussing their potentially dead relative, without betraying what you had witnessed? That's not caring or respect: it's just not giving a damn.

    4) The point of this post was that an employee, under no relevant obligation to the company, was fired for the equivalent of calling a friend to tell them that someone famous had just died, followed by that friend posting in their blog about it. If, instead, this had been the case--being connected to a kind of secondary leak--then it's more likely that he would not have lost his job, even if that friend's post had reached the same level of visibility as when posted to Wikipedia.

    5) What if the "leak" came from a reporter who just happened to be in the same wing as the dying anchor? I doubt they would have done much then.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 29th, 2008 @ 10:51am

    Corporate integrity? Or mad at being scooped?

    How ironic is it that someone, like Tim Russert, who has been intentionally put into the public spotlight by themselves and a large Media company should now be so desirous as to have their death considered a person matter to be kept quiet until they are themselves ready to release it. You can claim that there is a certain civil morality to being allowed to notify the family about such things but Tim Russert was put into the public spot light by both himself and NBC and "persons of public interest" have long had fewer privacies than ordinary people.

    Aren't these people some of the same ones who are so quick to diseminate reports, rumors, and fact-toids on celebrities and world leaders? If this had been about one of the more popular celebrities or a world leader of some third-world country I really doubt that they would be so quick to be concerned about making sure that the news didn't go out until the family had been notified.

    Forgive me if I'm less than impressed with their "concern" for the family and their pretend jouralisting integrity and instead view this more as a corporate reaction to being "scooped" on a news item that they themselves felt that they should have been first to present it.

     

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  26.  
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    The SEO Kid, Jun 30th, 2008 @ 11:37am

    ok.

    How do we call news privileged information? The news is simply, when broken down, the process of telling one person something that i happening or has happened. To be fired for having the respect to post a great man's death on Wikipedia before a news agency could isn't only unjust, but plain egregious. News is news, why do u think news companies having opened up to the public to make news, like ireport on cnn? terrible. just terrible.

     

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  27.  
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    missinglink, Feb 24th, 2009 @ 12:39pm

    Re: wtf was he fired for?

    I think he should have been fired. I think the media in general has no morals. On Aril 26, 1999 in Canoga park, Ca. a person named Donald Wyman killed my father in a hit and run. I was notified by my 77 year old aunt reading it to me in the morning's newspaper. When I called the newspaper, they stated that they had every right to do that without me being notified first by the police. Would you call that fair??? I was 7 1/2 months pregnant and instead of me celebrating my baby shower with my father that was excited about finally having a first graddaughter..I had to pick a suit out and coffin.

    You might call that fair but for the past 10 years, I have read and cried about my loss.

     

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